By: Diane Stirling
While the academic field of Information Systems has been officially around for more than half a century, little had been done to systematically collect and preserve the field’s evolution during that timeframe.
That’s why the appointment as an official historian for the Association for Information Systems (AIS) is such an important development for the field, and why School of Information Studies (iSchool) Professor Ping Zhang is especially pleased to fill it.
Named as the first AIS Historian earlier this year, Dr. Zhang spent much of her time–coinciding with her sabbatical leave–exploring the various aspects of the field’s history. AIS had been looking to establish the role for some time, “owing to the importance of collection, preservation, interpretation, writing and dissemination of the historical information in and about the IS field,” and that “the field has started losing its pioneers who may take some historical information away with them,” Dr. Zhang said.
AIS officers approached Dr. Zhang to ask her to take on the role after recognizing that she was both a long-time AIS member and a published authority on IS history. Her work already consisted of “evaluating and examining the historical perspective and the longitudinal pattern of how the IS and other related disciplines evolved,” she noted.
That approach came to the right place at the right time for AIS and for Dr. Zhang, too. During part of her sabbatical leave, she was assessing what might be her next big professional challenge, she said. Instead, it found her.
After being asked to take on the voluntary role, and contemplating what she might be able to contribute, Dr. Zhang decided to take on the task. Part of her enthusiasm, she explained, is that she had already attempted to start examining IS history informally, through fellow AIS members, but with little result. Additionally, the work attracted her because she likes “to do something new, something that no one else has done, something that has big and broad impact, and I like to organize things–conferences, special issues of journals. I also like seeing how people can work together to collaborate towards a common goal,” she added.
Approaching the task is “much like conducting anthropology, but in the information world,” she said. With so little collected and archived to date, the IS field faced the potential of having its history lost, she believes. “To have a historic identity in any field, you have to have some representation of the history. Unless it is documented and written down, and someone collects and represents and interprets those artifacts, history is forgotten.” Dr. Zhang noted the truism that, “Whatever is being collected and represented about the field will be the truth about it in the future.”
Dr. Zhang, together with a group of IS scholars who are interested in IS history, has been busy with the effort, developing long-term and short-term plans, establishing the legal, technological and practice infrastructures, and raising awareness within the association regarding the need for historical documentation. She organized IS History panels involving a good number of IS field lifetime achievement award winners at three major IS conferences over the summer. She has set up the IS history website (accessible from AIS website) and a Mendeley group to begin the work of gathering of facts about historical perspectives, history-making occasions, the stories of how things came to be in the field, and publications on or about IS history. Also in planning, she said, is a series of interviews withsome of the pioneers in Information Systems field, describing their life stories and contributions.
AIS is the premier professional association for individuals and organizations who lead the research, teaching, practice, and study of information systems worldwide. It aims to serve society through the advancement of knowledge and the promotion of excellence in the practice and study of information systems.