History of Information Subscribe to History of Information


University of Illinois Research Board

For over two millennia, librarians have played a critical role in the production and transmission of knowledge. They have helped to collect, catalogue, and curate a vast range of materials that constitute much of our cultural heritagefrom epic poetry on papyrus scrolls to PDFs of scholarly articles. This project interrogates these practices by building a librarian's cabinet of curiosity, and populating it with explicit examples of the mundane activities that occur in and around the library.

University of Illinois Research Board

This project expands Tilley’s investigation of comics from the perspective of readers, a much-neglected group in both contemporary and historical research. Comics readership among young people peaked in the mid-twentieth century with levels reaching near 100%, yet there has been little scholarly investigation of this phenomenon. Funding for this project will enable archival research trips and hourly research support to complete data collection necessary for a single-author monograph that will provide a coherent examination of the social and cultural role of comics in United States’s children’s print culture throughout the twentieth century.


This project examines writers who represent education as an embodied experience, with learning and literacy grounded in what they called “object learning” or “the education of things.” Denouncing rote-learning in favor of an induction method, object lessons promised to coordinate the development of body and mind by using the pupil’s senses as a catalyst for higher cognitive thought. Children place themselves above the elements composing their environment, which they control through what Hoiem calls “mechanical literacy”—that is, by learning the dependable laws governing how things are sensed, manipulated, created, purchased, manufactured, and exchanged. The project mobilizes a uniquely diverse archive of material and print cultures—pedagogical treatises, radical newspapers, automaton...


The public library system in Britain today is reeling under the impact of neo-liberalist attitudes to the role of the state in society. This contrasts starkly with attitudes to public libraries when they were first proposed and established in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. At this time, economic liberals argued in favour of state involvement in the provision of libraries to compensate for the patchy and 'exclusive' provision that had been built up voluntarily over the centuries. In this context, an examination is made of the advocacy of liberals like Samuel Smiles, the leading publicist of self-help, and James Silk Buckingham, publisher, adventurer and reformer. 


Opened in 1997, the new British Library at St. Pancras, London was designed as a building of two main volumes, one devoted to the arts and humanities, the other to science, technology and business. This dichotomy echoed the debate set in motion in 1959 by the publication of C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. The project asked in which ways this debate fed through into Colin St. John Wilson's iconic design for the new British Library, the plan for which was more than a generation in the making. 


Intelligence has always been an aspect of organized warfare. It was not until the 1870s, however, that the British Army effectively recognised this formally by establishing a dedicated division named the "Intelligence Branch," to be supported by libraries spread across a number of locations. The project explores the ways in which these services developed before the First World War and, specifically, what information and library management techniques they employed?


One of the enduring attractions of books is their ability to stand witness to their own presence through time and space. A history of social interaction is marked on the pages of a book; a folded corner, a stain from a careless reader's cup of coffee, and a thoughtful comment in the margin accrue and transmit something of where the book has been, with whom, and under what circumstances. Characterized by Walter Benjamin as the particular historical testimony that adheres to a unique body, the auratic quality of the singular object must now be reconciled with digital entities that can be concurrently embodied in different material configurations. Rather than summoning a Benjaminian aura that is attached to a specific materiality, then, the performance of the digital entices the reader in...


This project uses the friendship bracelet as a way to "re-weave" the academic canon. Friendship bracelets are handmade macramé bracelets of embroidery thread, intended to be worn as a sign of lasting friendship. In this collaboration with Julia Pollack (MS '12), bracelets have been woven with bibliographical references to important work of women in the field of knowledge-production.

The bracelets, with their citations in the author-date format of the Chicago Manual of Style, index scholarship by women across the disciplines about the making of knowledge, as well as the invisible practice of librarianship that is often undertaken by women. Weaving bibliographical references into friendship bracelets offers a novel way to foreground and consider the labor that underpins knowledge...


Although standardized vocabularies and languages are often invoked as a way to ensure interoperability in the management of informational resources, these conventions prioritize particular ways of representing the world. This project situates metadata as an infrastructure of information, and examines how such descriptive practices have configured the production of knowledge for centuries—from medieval herbals to global surveillance efforts in the 21st century.

Metadata Poems is composed of a series of publications that explores the complicated relationship between metadata and their ostensible referents. In a forthcoming chapter, Mak and her collaborator, Julia Pollack (MS '12), investigate the formal structure of a card catalog through a performance of bibliographical...


Aug. 3, 2017

Bonnie Mak will join book artists, conservators, and archivists for a discussion of the future of the book at the symposium, "Codex: History, Art, and Practice." Hosted by the Ohio Preservation Council and the State Library of Ohio, the symposium brings together information professionals from across the state who are interested in the preservation of documentary heritage. 

In her talk, "Publication, Post-Codex," Mak will offer a provocation on academic publishing beyond the single-authored book. 

"Although innovative approaches to scholarship continue to be touted by university administrators, relatively little attention has been paid to how such work might be registered, disseminated, and preserved," Mak said. "I hope to stimulate further debate about what 'innovative' publications are, how institutional infrastructures can support them, and who will bear their costs." 

Mak's discussants...

Jul. 31, 2017

Professor Emeritus Alistair Black discussed his research on British military intelligence at the conference "Information and Communication in Wartime," which was held July 25-26 at the University of London.

He presented his paper, "'All information flows toward it, or returns to it in a form worked up into shape': the Intelligence Branch of the British War Office, 1873-1914." 

Abstract: In 1873 the British War Office established an Intelligence Branch, thereby formally recognizing, for the first time, the importance of gathering, organizing and disseminating information for strategic military purposes. Based on documents held in the National Archives (UK), this paper explores the ways in which the work of the War Office Intelligence Branch developed before the First World War in response to imperial and foreign-military challenges. Specifically, attention is paid to the type of information management methods that were employed. Significantly, these methods pre-...

Apr. 20, 2017

Professor Alistair Black and doctoral candidate Henry Gabb have been honored by the American Library Association's Library Research Round Table (LRRT) with the 2017 Jesse H. Shera Award for Distinguished Published Research. The annual award recognizes research that employs exemplary research design and methods in the planning or initial stage of use.

Black and Gabb's research repeated a 1916 survey of American corporate libraries with a selection of today's corporate librarians to assess operations and perceived value, following nearly a century of change. Their findings, presented in "The Value Proposition of the Corporate Library, Past and Present" and published in Information & Culture: A Journal of History (2016, vol. 51, no. 2), underscored the enduring value of the corporate library.

From the abstract:...

Jun. 22, 2016

Doctoral student Steve Witt (MS '95) is the recipient of the 2016 Donald G. Davis Article Award given by the Library History Round Table of the American Library Association (ALA). The award will be presented on June 26 at the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida, at the Library History Round Table Research Forum.

The award is given every second year and recognizes the best article written in English in the field of United States and Canadian library history, including the history of libraries, librarianship, and book culture. Witt’s winning article, “...

Jun. 7, 2016

Assistant Professor Elizabeth Hoiem and Associate Professor Carol Tilley will speak at the 2016 Children’s Literature Association Conference, to be held June 9-11 at The Ohio State University. The theme of the conference is “Animation,” which reflects developments in aesthetic creation and critical analysis of children’s and young adult literature.

Hoiem will chair a session titled, “The ABCs of Pedagogy: Visual Culture and Literacy,” on June 11, during which she will present her paper, “Reading objects, Reading books: The Mechanical Literacies of Industrial Britain.”

My paper argues that perceptions of early literacy and children’s books shifted during Britain’s first industrial revolution (1780-1850), as educators conceptualized learning and reading in materialist terms….Called “object learning” or “the education of things,” these pedagogical practices used a child’s physical awareness of her body and...

Jun. 2, 2016

In their recent article, “The Value Proposition of the Corporate Library, Past and Present,” Professor Alistair Black and doctoral student Henry Gabb discuss findings from their survey of modern corporate librarians.

Their investigation looks at changes in valuation of the corporate library over the past one hundred years, using a survey conducted in 1916 as a benchmark.

Abstract: Corporate libraries of the kind we would recognize today began to appear around the turn of the twentieth century. They were a response to a rapidly changing corporate and commercial environment, acting as adjuncts to both the rise of systematic industrial research and the office management revolution that accompanied the implementation of scientific management.

A survey of American corporate libraries in 1916 by the British manufacturer Rowntree and Company provides a snapshot of their operations and perceived value. The survey was repeated with a selection of today’s corporate...

Mar. 18, 2016

Professor Alistair Black addressed a gathering of historians in the Great Hall of historic Lambeth Palace in London on March 1. The event was held in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the publication of Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland (CHLBI), a three-volume work published by Cambridge University Press. Black co-edited the third volume, covering the years 1850-2000.

The event was organized by the Library and Information History Group of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), and many of the contributors to CHLBI were in attendance. A feature of the proceedings was the presentation of a festschrift, co-edited by Black, to Peter Hoare, the CHLBI’s general editor and a leading figure in library history in the UK over the last half-century. The festschrift forms a double issue (Parts 1 & 2,...