The “Data Deluge” or “Science in the Archives”

The University of Chigaco Press 2017 published an interesting book: Science in the Archives, edited by Lorraine Daston. It shows that “the past can be a treasure trove of material vital to present and future research”: data banks assembled by geneticists; weather diaries trawled by climate scientists; libraries visited by historians. The book discusses episodes in the history of geology, genetics, philology, climatology, medicine, and more. Thoroughly exploring the practices, it “reveals the essential historical dimension of the sciences” including the use of Big Data.The book is the outcome of discussions organized by a Working Group at the Max Planck Instiute for the History of Science in Berlin 2013 and 2014. It stresses the nessecity of a third nature: The archives of the sciences that transfrom the first nature into a second, empiristic nature.

The book consists of twelve essays about “how the sciences choose to remember past findings and plan future research”. They look at ways in which scholars have preserved and ordered scientific knowledge from antiquity to the present. Each argues a different case, unfolding different archival practices.

In short: The book traces how archives provided crucial support to the process of creating scientific data. It reveals the essential historical dimension of the sciences, adding a long­-term perspective to contemporary debates over of Big Data.

Big Data is huge issue in historical and social science. To mention just one example: The Institute of Contemporary History at the Columbia University discusses it on November 6-7, 2017: https://bigdataconference2017.wordpress.com/. I discussed it recently in my book, too: Geschichte digital – Historische Welten neu vermessen.


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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