January 06, 2012
By Scott Nielson
Editor’s Note: The AHA welcomes Scott Nielson, who will be sharing his perspective as an undergraduate attending the annual meeting through a series of posts here on AHA Today. Nielson is a senior at BYU, interested in 20th century American history.
Rather than attend my first week of class at Brigham Young University, I elected to visit the annual AHA conference for my first time—I arrived Thursday late afternoon and made it to a portion of the plenary session entitled How to Write a History of Information.
In the opening presentation, Paula Findlen, professor of early modern European history at Stanford, sketched a brief narrative of Leibniz’s efforts to consolidate a network of communications across Europe and into China. The 17th century philosopher came to rely on the discoveries made by Jesuit scholars across the globe through the medium of tens of thousands of letters. Findlen’s presentation was a tad difficult to follow, considering my unfamiliarity with the topic and the fact that she presented her paper without any visuals or pauses.
Randolph Head of the University of California, Riverside came next, focusing on the study of archives from the same era. Comparing the archives of the past to the dusty archives we often think of today, Head explained the “friction” inherent in these collections. These archives, whose interpretation depends on “who reads what for whom,” were affected by friction imposed by human action, entropy (the effects of mice, bugs, water, and fire), and the more esoteric de-/trans-/resemiosis—structural friction across time. In other words, a mouse could get in the way of historical preservation.