Opening of the 126th Annual Meeting: A History of Information

Plenary session 126th annual meeting American Historical AssociationLast evening’s Opening of the 126th Annual Meeting featured the plenary session “How to Write a History of Information: A Session in Honor of Peter Burke,” a detailed look at information networks, collecting information in archives, and the origins of the terms “data” and “information.”

Ann M. Blair opened the plenary, explaining that the panelists would collectively address “the digital revolution we live through today.” She then called to the podium the first speaker of the night, Paula Findlen.

Findlen’s paper, “How Information Travels: Lessons from the Early Modern Republic of Letters,” examined how Jesuit networks intersected with the Republic of Letters in creating, collecting, and dispersing knowledge. She described how the Jesuit missionaries meticulously accumulated information about the world, recording such scientific measurements as magnetic declinations gathered during lunar eclipses.

She was followed by Randolph C. Head, whose talk on “Making Information in Early Modern European Archives” presented archives through three lenses: metadata (data explaining what archives contain), authority (the power of documents), and friction (the damage and loss of archival materials through physical means like water or mice, human action like hiding or destruction, and even the actual process of archiving).

The final two panelists of the night led the audience on fascinating journeys through the emergence and evolution of two terms. Daniel Rosenberg shared the work he’s been doing on a project to track the word “data” from its earliest use in 1646, to its decline in the 1980s, to today. He urged the audience to experiment with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which had made his own research that much easier. Paul Duguid took on the word “information,” its shifting usage and relation to other terms like “knowledge,” and the conflicts of the quest for information and information overload. He pointed to the ways in which “information” in its various manifestations played a role in the making of the (Habermasian) public sphere.

Outgoing AHA President Anthony Grafton shifted the session from the paper presentations to recognizing Peter Burke. Remarking that time and words were inadequate to properly describe the achievements of Burke, Grafton called on the audience to “join me in honoring one of the great historians of our time,” and the crowd responded with much applause.

Peter Burke humbly accepted the praise and took some time to make remarks on each of the four papers just delivered. He pointed out the value in each, then added his own thoughts. He concluded his talk by commenting on all the ways in which to understand the history of information: quantitatively or qualitatively, globally or locally, through various media, genres of communication, and more.

Finally, the evening was given over to the audience, whose rich and well-thought-out questions often led to more questions than answers by the presenters, and ended the session with a feeling of excitement for future discovery and investigation.

Listen to the complete audio recording of this session through the player below, or by downloading this MP3 file to your computer.

From the left in the photo above: Anthony Grafton, Randolph C. Head, Paula Findlen, Daniel Rosenberg (partially obscured), Peter Burke, Ann M. Blair, and Paul Duguid.

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