[Humanist] 22.555 good advice

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Feb 21 10:49:15 CET 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 555.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 21 Feb 2009 09:40:40 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: good advice

I pass along some very good advice given by Kenneth May, a man who 
taught the history of mathematics at Toronto and who thought a bit about 
writing the history of computing. His article, "Historiography: A 
Perspective for Computer Scientists", is the first piece in a fine 
collection, A History of Computing in the Twentieth Century, ed. N 
Metropolis, J Howlett and Gian-Carlo Rota (Academic Press, 1980), filled 
with treasures, from which I have quoted before.

Here's what May says:

> The most important thing here is that active people in the field have
> enough sense of history to realize that they should leave traces.... So,
> keep in mind that although a letter, a note, a diary, report, or a
> preliminary draft of a publication may be of no further interest to you
> and ready to be discarded, it might be very valuable in the future. So
> keep records. After all, people can throw it out later. It's impossible
> for an individual to assess the value of his own papers since they may
> have relevance to matters unknown to him. 
> The second thing that computer people can do is to talk and write about
> what they have done and are doing. It isn't enough in any science to do
> things; it's necessary to communicate what has been done. But I'm
> suggesting something more than the usual communication. Not only
> communicate your scientific results but also talk about how they arose
> who was involved, all those things that are often unrecorded. We need
> memoirs. Reminiscences and memoirs that we have from the past are few
> and very valuable. So yield to any inclinations to reminisce. 
> And, finally, I should comment on participants becoming historians.
> There are pitfalls in this, of course, because people's memories are not
> precise. But that does not matter. The essence of historical scholarship
> is to use memoirs and other primary sources with discretion. And so a
> person who has participated shouldn't worry about the bias that he has
> because of his own participation. The historians will take care of that
> in due time by comparing sources, checking dates, and so on. (p. 14)

The first thing, keeping traces of work done, applies to all of us, I 
think -- and our students, who should be taught to write down what they 
are doing as they do it (see 
www.cch.kcl.ac.uk/legacy/teaching/av1000/howto/essay-report.doc for an 
attempt to describe the genre of work that results). The second thing, 
talking about what we're doing as we do it, is of course what's behind 
Humanist and now loads of other such modes of communication. The third 
thing, writing memoirs, seems an urgent responsibility for all of us 
graybeards hereabouts. Having just read through Metropolis, Howlett and 
Rota's collection of reminiscences from the likes of Bakus, Burks, 
Dijkstra, Eckert, Hamming, Knuth, Mauchly, Ulam, Zuse et al -- a 
treasure-house of raw material for the historian -- I'm really hoping 
for a good harvest from those who all too soon will (to use a British 
idiom) pop off and thereafter become rather uncommunicative.



Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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