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Historical informatics

The Role of Information Hierarchy in the Study of History

Vladimirova Alina V.

ORCID: 0000-0003-4069-3166

Researcher, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences

107031, Russia, g. Moscow, ul. Rozhdestvenka, 12

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Abstract: In the times of the data revolution, there is an urgent need to address numerous issues on how ongoing transformations of everyday life are influencing society and historians who study it. Thus, publications like Information: A Historical Companion are very important as they give our academic community a basis for a discussion on new possible theoretical and methodological backgrounds of historical research. However, while this book contains a range of diversified studies and deep reflections on information and the evolution of its sources, we wonder why among related notions like data and knowledge there was no place for such a core concept as the information hierarchy. Thus, we would like to raise a question on the role of the DIKW-model for history and to demonstrate how it could help to solve a common problem in the misuse of terminology. This opinion piece is a part of publications following the meeting dedicated to a discussion of the book Information: A Historical Companion organized by the Historical Informatics journal on October 26, 2021.


information hierarchy, DIKW model, history, information, data, knowledge, data revolution, theoretical background, methodology of historical research, book review

This article is automatically translated. You can find original text of the article here.

The importance of publications like the book "Information: A Historical Guide" ("Information: A Historical Companion") [5], it is difficult to overestimate. With all the easily found shortcomings concerning both the definitions and theories presented and the work with historical facts, it cannot be denied that such a publication is extremely in demand at the present time, when the transformations of the reality around us are so profound that everywhere they began to talk about the advent of the era of the data revolution. The changes that are happening so quickly before our eyes, it is necessary not just to have time to comprehend, but to try to understand how they affect both society and historians studying it. In such a situation, books that provide a basis for discussion and, albeit imperfectly, but still indicate the main starting points are extremely important.

In this aspect, the format of the book was chosen very well. It consists of two parts: the first of them is a collection of works on forms of information and their meaning in various historical epochs, and the second, almost twice as large in volume, is the same terminological reference book declared in the title of the book with the usual alphabetical sorting. The publication should first of all be attributed to the category of textbooks, which can be very useful for students who often need to quickly understand some concept when preparing reports, abstracts and exam questions. Although a similar task can undoubtedly be faced by a long-established scientist, for example, when it is necessary to clarify the meaning of the term adopted by historians. It is obvious that the authors of the book meant this use of it, because each section contains an enumeration of related concepts and a list of references for additional reading.

The division of the book into two such parts may also appeal to those who turn to this work for the sake of the 13 chapters contained in it, since in theory it allows the reader to get acquainted in more detail with the concept that interests him, without switching to a new source of information. However, it is not known how much it will be possible to do this, because a selection of terms raises questions. Along with the expected "media", "databases", "woodcut" for such a book, the reference book includes such concepts as "commodification" or "travel", which can hardly be called basic concepts for the reference book on information. Probably, the compilers were guided by the concepts most important for the research presented in the first part, but in the end the list looks somewhat unbalanced and partly illogical, and the negative impression is reinforced by the absence of a number of key positions in it.

So, we see sections that reveal the concepts of "data" and "knowledge", which, together with "information", are the basis for highlighting the information hierarchy, for which there is no definition in the handbook, although this theory is intended to clearly distinguish the designated concepts, often incorrectly used as synonyms.

It should be noted that for a publication devoted to information and its forms in the course of the historical development of society, in general, it is extremely strange not to find at least a mention of the information hierarchy, not to mention the fact that this is the expected theoretical basis for such works published in the last two decades. It is believed that the first who clearly divided the levels of the information hierarchy was the English poet, Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot, when in 1934[4] he raised the question of the loss of wisdom in knowledge, and knowledge in information, however, in the modern form, the links between the categories were formalized in 1982[2], when the concept of "data" was added to them. It is noteworthy that initially the "DIKW model" was presented not in the form of a pyramid, but in the form of a continuum from the past, to which data, information and knowledge belonged, to the future, the vision of which was to be based on wisdom[3]. At the moment, one can find various variations of the information hierarchy adapted to specific studies or branches of science, but it is obvious that for history it is necessary to include the concept of "fact", "evidence" and "evidence", and it also makes sense to reflect the special significance of the historical source (Fig. 1). Unfortunately, this theory, undoubtedly directly related to the topic of the book under consideration, has not been properly reflected either in its methodology or in its content; to the point that the author himself uses data and information as synonyms when describing the process of their transformation into knowledge[1].


Fig.1. "DIKW-model" for historical science

Questions about the content of the handbook can also include the absence of terms from the field of information technology, which have become popular in recent years, although the book itself repeatedly emphasizes the importance of digitalization or the emergence of big data. The fact that the book is aimed at scientists engaged in the study of the past does not mean at all that they are outside of modern discourses and do not use the latest tools in their work. It is clear that it is impossible to include all the terms in such a book, but it seems that it would be more expedient to explain the concepts that cause difficulties. For example, to add a section about blockchain and distributed registry, and not about "diplomats/spies", although it is very interesting, and the fact that "Russian hackers" are put on a par with WikiLeaks may sound like a compliment to domestic specialists for many.

Meanwhile, we note that questions about the content of the second part of the book most likely arise due to the fact that it really turned out to be worthy and it would be interesting to read about those concepts from the field of information and communication technologies, about which there is still little written in scientific publications on history. There is no doubt that the compilers of the collection tried to diversify the content as much as possible, so the book examines various countries and historical periods. However, it seems that the interpretations of the presented cases are still given only from the position of Western science. The correctness of this conclusion can be partially confirmed by looking at the list of authors of the handbook and their affiliation (Fig.2). Of the 107 researchers who took part in writing the book, only two are university employees from Asian countries. Moreover, the Middle East is represented by the Israeli scientist Tzur Shalev, and China is represented by Diana Lemberg, who, simply because she was educated in the United States, is in fact also a representative of the American academic tradition.


Fig.2. The countries represented by the authors of the book "Information: Historical reference"

Due to the fact that the materials for the collection are presented by a large number of scientists, the reader can find different solutions in one book in terms of the methodology of historical research, but it seems that the book would be even better if the diversification concerned not only the topics covered, but also the approaches to understanding the past adopted in different countries. This would undoubtedly increase the value of the book, especially if we consider its importance for historical science not from the point of view of a textbook, but as a basis for starting a discussion on the changes taking place in the era of the data revolution. In the light of these considerations, I would like to hope that in the future we will see more publications like the book "Information: Historical Reference", in which there will be a place for new terms and for new authors.

1. Burke P. Knowledge // Information: A Historical Companion / Edited by A. Blair, P. Duguid, A.-S. Goeing, A. Grafton. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021. P. 538544.
2. Cleveland H. Information as a Resource // Futurist. 1982. Vol. 16. No. 6. P. 3439.
3. DIKW model' // SimpleOne ESM-platforma dlya avtomatizatsii biznes-protsessov [Elektronnyi resurs]. URL: https://simpleone.ru/glossary/dikw-model/ (data obrashcheniya: 09.02.2020).
4. Eliot T.S. The Rock. London: Faber & Faber, 1934. 87 pp.
5. Information: A Historical Companion / Edited by A. Blair, P. Duguid, A.-S. Goeing, A. Grafton. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021. 904 pp.

Peer Review

Peer reviewers' evaluations remain confidential and are not disclosed to the public. Only external reviews, authorized for publication by the article's author(s), are made public. Typically, these final reviews are conducted after the manuscript's revision. Adhering to our double-blind review policy, the reviewer's identity is kept confidential.
The list of publisher reviewers can be found here.

The reviewed text is, apparently, a brief review or part of a discussion about the book "Information: A Historical Companion", published in 2021 at Princeton and is a kind of reference book for a historian in the information field. The author analyzes the contents of the handbook and draws a number of conclusions about its value to readers. The methodology of the article is determined by its content. The author's approach is based on the analysis of the text of the information handbook. Indirectly, we can also talk about interdisciplinary and systematic approaches to the study of the material. The relevance of the article is determined primarily by its attitude to the problems related to data and their analysis. In fact, the text of the book considered by the author of the article is a kind of preface to working with data. The scientific novelty of the article is connected, in particular, with the fact that such publications have not yet been widely distributed in Russian science, and consideration of such an up-to-date and modern example of a historical reference book written on an information topic can give an additional impetus to understanding the need for such publications, or to realizing their redundancy in a huge number of works published today. Due to the small size of the article, which barely reaches the minimum volume for this type of scientific publication, the structure of the text is quite simple and obvious, while there are no subheadings. At the beginning of the article, a brief description of the book in question is given, its connection with the study of data is noted. Here, the author carefully determines whether the reference book in question belongs to the category of textbooks, which one can rather disagree with, leaving the name "reference book" for him. The author also notes the controversy of the collection of terms presented in the book. Arguing with the authors of the book, the author of the article offers his own data hierarchy model based on DIKW models (data - information knowledge wisdom) plus the special significance of the historical source. The higher level of the second part of the book is noted, while it is noted that its content reflects exclusively the achievements of Western science. In general, the book is given a positive assessment. Despite the small volume of the text of the article, there was room for 2 author's illustrations. The article is written in a good literary and scientific language that is well understood and does not allow for different interpretations of what is written. The genre of the reviewed text also determines the volume of the bibliographic list, which is quite sufficient for a full understanding of the author's provisions. The article itself is of a debatable nature, while many provisions are not expanded due to the small volume of the text. The article, of course, fully corresponds to the format of the journal and will arouse the interest of a wide range of readers. Both information science specialists and historians will get to know her with interest. The article is recommended for publication.
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