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This classic panel session will review recent trends and issues in the study of the history of information science and technology and present findings from the first awards given by the ASIST History Fund. It will consist of three presentations: (1) an overview, by Robert V. Williams, of recent trends and issues and identify some of the major gaps that need to be addressed in future work; (2) a presentation by Charles Meadow, winner of the 2009 ASIST History Fund Research Grant award, of the results of his study of the history of the digital divide; (3) a presentation by Rachel Plotnick, winner of the 2009 ASIST History Fund Best Paper award, on her study of the history of a total hospital medical information system developed in the 1960's and 1970's.

Presentation 1:

Robert V. Williams, Distinguished Prof., Emeritus

School of Library and Information Science Univ. of South Carolina Columbia, SC 29208 e-mail: bobwill@sc.edu

Title: Trends, Issues and Gaps in the Study of the History of Information Science and Technology


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Over the past 20 years the study of the history of information science and technology has grown from less than 10 active researchers and writers to more than 50 today. The scope of these activities, both topically as well as geographically, has also increased. These researchers are no longer predominantly from library and information science but now come from a wide variety of fields of study, with particular strength from the history of science and technology. Publication activity has also increased and historical coverage is now included in many different journals and monograph series from respectable publishers, such as MIT Press, are now appearing regularly. However, despite this increased attention, there are still significant and large gaps in coverage. Some of these will be explored in this presentation. In addition, and perhaps most serious for future research, there is no institutional repository that emphasizes the collection of papers and archival records for the history of information science and technology. This presentation will identify the few institutions that partially focus on collecting in this area. Finally, a plea will be made that ASIST members seriously consider the value of their own personal papers and make plans to have them deposited.

Presentation 2:

Charles Meadow, Prof. Emeritus Faculty of Information Univ. of Toronto e-mail: ct.meadow@shaw.ca

Title: Some History of the Digital Divide

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Digital divide is a relatively new term, indicating a separation between members of a community based on use or non-use of a new means of communication, calculation or sources of information. A community can be any grouping, from a family to a nation. The word digital, came into general use only in the twentieth century. The digital divide is mostly concerned with television, computers, the Internet and the immense variety of communication options through personal assistants or other combinations of computers with basic wireless telephony. This study was undertaken to gain a historical perspective on the divisions or divides created by information and communication inventions, beginning with spoken language. (We use the word invention to emphasize that language, writing and of course the other more mechanical systems were products of the human mind.) The benefits, direct or indirect, of these inventions are generally known: increase in GDP and education, extension of life expectancy, creation of a middle class and democratic government. Relatively little is written about those beyond the divides of the past. Even today there are people unable to read or write, far more unable to use a computer. The developments discussed are: spoken language, writing, printing, electrical communication (telegraph and telephone), wireless communication (radio and television) and, lumped together, computers, the Internet and wide area communication systems. As these developments increase in number and change comes ever faster, the divides become more complex and the effects less predictable.

Presentation 3:

Rachel Plotnick, Doctoral Student Northwestern Univ. Media, Technology, and Society Program e-mail: rachelplotnick2012@u.northwestern.edu

Title: Computers, System Theory and the Making of a Wired Hospital: A History of Technicon Medical Information System, 1964–1987

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Following World War II, military and aerospace organizations set their sights on civilian problems, arguing that the approaches that put a man on the moon or launched a decisive wartime attack could solve the complex, human-oriented problems that plagued society ranging from water pollution to juvenile delinquency. Among these problems, the faltering state of health care in the United States stood out. In 1969, President Nixon declared that medicine faced a “massive crisis.” Rising costs, debates over patient rights, concern about government involvement and increasing physician error dominated the discourse. Systems theory appeared poised to make an intervention, but selling the approach would not be easy, as many considered new technologies and automated processes anathema to the human-focused health care industry. This paper investigates the controversy surrounding the systems approach in medicine, contributing to the body of literature on the historical use of systems theory in civilian contexts.

Specifically, the paper follows the design and implementation of a total hospital information system at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, CA in the 1960s and 70s. The case study suggests that while many considered “people problems” like health care too complex for the systems approach, in fact it could have positive results if system engineers could translate social concerns about medicine into business and organizational strategies. This paper identifies the ways systems designers approached an organization that was characterized by autonomy rather than collaboration, craft rather than science, and charity rather than business, and helped to redefine that organization as one that emphasized rationality, efficiency, and the co-existence of man and machine.