In March 2020, our new edited volume Forms of Knowledge: Developing the History of Knowledge (Nordic Academic Press) will be published. The book is a product of the newly established Lund Centre for the History of Knowledge (LUCK) and brings together some twenty historians from different scholarly traditions to develop the history of knowledge. In the weeks to come, we will publish a series of samples from the book.
A central issue in the history of knowledge has been to define what knowledge means as a way of defining what the history of knowledge is about. One way of doing this has been to delimit it from the adjacent concept of information: information is raw whereas knowledge is cooked to use a common distinction adopted by historians of knowledge from Claude Lévi-Strauss. Information is definitely part of knowledge producing practices but information should not be exempted from historical scrutiny in its own right. In this article I present the field of information history and discuss how our contemporary understandings of information also need to be questioned from a historical point of view. We need to understand knowledge as well as information as historical phenomena. This does however not bring a clearer conceptualization of neither knowledge nor information to the fore though I suggest that theoretical insights and discussions within history of knowledge can be used for supporting theoretical discussions in information history and thus help clarifying at least the blurred lines between the two concepts.
One way of illuminating differences and resemblances is concrete analytical examples. My own research is informed by information history and theoretical insights from the field of rhetorical genre theory. From this perspective, information is formed by communicative actions. Using an example from the police archives in a Danish context I wish to investigate how a perceived need of information defined a need for certain genres of information such as tables, ledgers, reports, verdicts etc. and how information about deviances and criminal behavior was formed, shaped, communicated and circulated. But police work is also about certain forms of knowledge – most prominently ‘suspicions’ and how they are either verified or debunked and what the consequences for the accused were. Information history and history of knowledge provide opportunities for asking new questions to past events and thus information history and the history of knowledge should take inspiration from each other. However, they also address different research areas with different questions.
Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen