Interview with the author: Cortada on the Information Revolution

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

March 21, 2023

I had the pleasure of interviewing the author of a book that is particularly useful for librarians who are navigating changing information landscapes.

James W. Cortada is the author of Birth of Modern Facts: How the Information Revolution Transformed Academic Research, Governments, and Businesses (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2023). My interview with him is below:

1. Please introduce yourself to our readers.

I am Jim Cortada, Senior Research Fellow at the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. I am a historian of business management and also of modern information. I also worked at IBM, the largest computer company in the twentieth century, for nearly 40 years. I have written several dozen books about the history of computing and about the role of information in modern society.

2. Briefly summarize Birth of Modern Facts: How the Information Revolution Transformed Academic Research, Governments, and Businesses.

This book is a history of how information increased massively in quantity and variety over the past two centuries, far more than in any previous time. It explains how that happened and why. I argue that the world became wealthier, so could afford more information, that innovations in science and technology made it possible to create and discover new information, and increased the need for new information. This happened in all industries and walks of life, from scientists and engineers to workers in all professions, and even in the private lives of people and their children. I describe how all this happened by looking at what people in various disciplines and professions, such as librarians, computer scientists, mathematicians, STEM scientists, economists, business and government employees, did in various disciplines and professions, along with historians and political scientists. I found they all worked in similar ways at the same time, borrowing ideas from each other on how to organize information, what forms facts should take (e.g., numbers or texts), and how best to use these.

3. What sparked your interest in this topic?

I had written several histories of information, such as what existed in the USA since the mid-1800s and about the role of information in business, government, and private lives. In the process I realized that not only did people use more of it, but also that the types expanded in variety, too. That story had to be told. Changes included the use of telegraphy, radio, TV, and computer data files, not just expanded uses of books and other paper-based publications—and the use of more mathematics and statistics to describe information, which was much more widely available in work, public libraries, and other spaces in people’s lives. Information was converted into tools for work and pleasure, such as spreadsheets, online databases, and manuals. Topics became more varied, too, with increasing numbers of ever-narrower disciplines and categories of information becoming a feature of modern life. This development shaped the variety of professions, hobbies, and other activities that we experience today.

4. Why do you feel it is important for information workers (librarians, archivists, museum employees) to understand the history of information?

There are four reasons: 

  • Those professionals continue to transform information as leading agents of innovation, inventing and discovering new facts, along with professors, scientists, and employees 
  • Most people today are “knowledge workers,” using information more than muscles to go about their work—so are dependent on librarians, archivists and museum employees to equip them to do such things as understand the world around them, and solve medical and environmental problems, for example. 
  • Understanding how information evolves helps them to continue that process, while constraining the creation and flow of fake or misleading information. 
  • Their own work is affected by the continuing changes unfolding with information, such as the increasing role of artificial intelligence (AI), visualization of data techniques we see so often in, say, PowerPoint presentations, and in the use of computer-based models.

5. Due to the increase in the quantity of information, what are two recommendations you have for those working in the information field (e.g., librarians, archivists, museum employees)? Is there anything they should do differently to ensure information remains accessible?

The first recommendation is to stay current with the new tools appearing that bring real, truthful, fake, false, and misleading information to this community—so they can deal with facts that are accurate. Second, after becoming and staying digitally literate, teach others to discriminate between accurate and inaccurate information, teach them how to find reliable facts, and how to create these within the context of modern computing. Access to digital tools is less of an issue today, because it seems “everyone” has a smart phone (actually some 75% of all folks over the age of 14) so access to information is easy. What is hard is to get to the right, useful, accurate information, largely coming through the Internet and, specifically, via social media feeds. Learn how to navigate that world. Librarians need to navigate the worlds of paper and electronics; archivists have to work with perishable digital files to save and access them for generations to come; museum professionals must mix and match physical objects and digital presentations to tell a story. Museum and library management are very exciting roles these days if one can get past frustrations concerning insufficient funding or space, because information can be presented to the public in more varied ways than, say, even one generation ago.

6. How do you see information changing in the future?

Today there are more sensors and devices creating information and transmitting it through the Internet than there are people, so recognizing and understanding what that new data is and how to harness it in ways that humans can understand is essential. The book discusses in non-technical language how that development is unfolding. Second, AI is finally—after 75 years of hype—being effective in collecting, analyzing, and presenting information to people and to other software. Most of the weather reports you read in newspapers are today prepared by AI (software); expect a lot more of that kind of writing in the future. We will learn to harness the emerging technologies and share them with wide swathes of the public, as has happened in the past. Hype that overstates the abilities of sensors and AI will continue, just as the diffusion of inaccurate or false information will spread, all made possible by the fact that trusted sources (e.g., experts) now compete with anyone with a point of view and access to the Internet pushing content out to the public at large. We should all welcome the convergence of information taking place. In the twentieth century large bodies of information led to narrow specializations, too many and too narrow perhaps, but with AI and other forms of computing, these can be consolidated more than in the past—and more quickly—which will lead to new bodies of information and insights. That is exciting!!

7. Do you have recommendations for how those working in the information field can stay current on new streams of information?

Bradford’s Law, familiar to librarians, applies here. Basically it says that if you consult the right half dozen sources of information you will get what you need— to keep up and to double the amount of that essential information you have to double the number of sources (so say 6 + 12), so that’s not as productive as consulting just the key ones. So, read the half dozen journals in your discipline (profession). Dabble in new forms of information creation and delivery, such as blogs and short videos, follow 2-3 blogs and Facebook or LinkedIn communities that are subject-specific but also describe broader social and economic conditions in the world for context. Historians like to remind people that understanding the past is preparation for dealing with the future: a world that is not a repeat of prior events.

8. Is there anything else you would like to share?

The vast amount of information created in the past two centuries made it possible for us to live life almost twice as long as before, to experience healthier, safer lives, and to experience more varied styles of living. We also learned how to have more deadly wars and how to damage the environment. On balance, we are better off than people were two centuries ago, because of our increased supply of practical information. We are dependent on it, so it is central to our existence to remain engaged with it. A pitch for the book: I include many stories of how information was created, used and formed that will be new to most readers. Readers will also learn what other professions wrestle with that they can bring over into their own jobs and interests. In addition, for those who take all this seriously, I provide a detailed bibliographic essay that explains what else to read and why.

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent presenter and interviewer on topics related to libraries and librarianship. Her expertise includes information literacy, educational technology, and library and information science education.  Please read Lauren’s other posts relevant to special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus, used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets.

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