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The proactive historian: Methodological opportunities presented by the new archives documenting genomics
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 55 (Feb-16) 70–82
February 2016 (First published online 14/10/2015 November 1999)
In this paper, I propose a strategy for navigating newly available archives in the study of late-twentieth century genomics.
I demonstrate that the alleged ‘explosion of data’ characteristic of genomics – and of contemporary science in general – is not a new problem and that historians of earlier periods have dealt with information overload by relying on the ‘perspective of time’: the filtering effect the passage of time naturally exerts on both sources and memories.
I argue that this reliance on the selective capacity of time results in inheriting archives curated by others and, consequently, poses the risk of reifying historical scientific discourses.
Through a preliminary examination of archives documenting early attempts at mapping and sequencing the human genome, I propose an alternative approach, in which historians proactively problematize and improve available sources. This approach provides historians with a voice in the socio-political management of scientific heritage and advances methodological innovations in the use of oral histories. It also provides a narrative framework in which to address big science initiatives by following second order administrators, rather than individual scientists. The new genomic archives thus represent an opportunity for historians to take an active role in current debates concerning ‘big data’ and critically embed the humanities in pressing global problems.