All the Facts: A History of Information in the United States since 1870

by James Cortada (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) xix, 636 pp. (hardcover) $99.00 ISBN 978-0-19-046067-9.

Let’s not fool around here: James Cortada’s magisterial history of information is the single most important book ever published on this fascinating and essential topic. Nothing else has even come close. Covering the period from 1870 to the present and totaling over 600 pages, Cortada has provided historians of information—in all its guises—with a deeply erudite tour of the remarkably complex landscape that characterizes how Americans have used information to work, to play, and to earn a living over the past nearly 150 years.

An indefatigable scholar, Cortada labored for nearly four decades at IBM in various capacities, and now serves as a senior research fellow at the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota. He has published a number of books on the history of information over the years, but All the Facts must be considered his most ambitious contribution yet.

In order to organize his sprawling topic, Cortada divides his discussion of how Americans have used information into three basic clusters: business and professional, government and education, and finally the private use of information. He then explores in detail with numerous examples how information has been used—many times in very practical ways—by Americans in their daily and work lives over the past century and a half.

After carefully—and thoroughly—describing the history of information in America since the Civil War, Cortada concludes that the wide availability of information and the willingness of Americans to apply it to their lives at home and on the job enabled the United States to leverage existing information to create and sustain a level of economic and technological growth that was the wonder of the nineteenth and twentieth century.

This is an exceedingly important book, and no brief review will do it justice. Cortada has wrought an incredible feat: describing the history of Americans and their use of information during the past 150 years, all within a single 636 page volume. Indeed, his 35-page bibliographic essay on the most significant sources is priceless for future scholars and will save all scholars an enormous amount of time right from the start.

Read this book. It is a seminal work by an established and well-regarded historian and will stand for years as the most comprehensive treatment of the history of information in America in the years since the Civil War.

Edward A. Goedeken, Parks Library, Iowa State University