The Commission on Bibliography and Documentation Holds a Summer Conference on Digital History of Science

Last month on 17 July, the Commission convened its annual business meeting and held a small conference on “New Directions in Digital History of Science” at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin (MPIWG). The one-day conference included papers by four members of the governing board of the Commission along with a talk by two scholars from the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (BBAW) and a scholar at MPIWG. The six papers were followed by an open discussion on collaboration in digital history of science.

Below, I provide a brief discussion of the conference, highlighting a few of the key points that were mentioned and debated. For a fuller treatment of these topics, the Commission will be publishing the conference talks through the MPIWG preprint series later this year.

The day began with the Commission’s business meeting, where various projects were discussed. In addition to ongoing projects, such as the World History of Science Online, the commission turned its focus to the digital preservation and documentation of archives related to the institutions and conferences organized by historians of science. The Commission’s first goal is to find and list the locations of archival records related to all of the IUHPS and other major international meetings in history of science during the 20th and 21st centuries. With appropriate funding, we hope to be able to eventually digitize and make available many of these records. By focusing on archival material and its digital preservation, we look forward to producing a history of the discipline’s international development.

A second project related to the one just mentioned was proposed, focusing on dissertation records. The president of the Commission has found that doing research on existing digital dissertation records is currently frustrating, and the records are frequently poorly entered and inadequate. Since dissertations reveal a lot about the formation of a discipline through mentor-mentee relationships, the Commission agreed to encourage the building of a robust database of dissertations in the field of history of science. Since the IsisCB dataset contains much of this information, the project will begin by studying this data and building on it.MPIWG 2014.07.17

The conference that followed the business meeting explored the ways that current digital projects are being developed. Birute Railiene’s paper explored the problems and possibilities of doing research on digital dissertation data using the European NDLTD (Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations). It was this research that demonstrated to her the need for a much more serious effort at cataloguing that would include all relevant fields—such as institution and dissertation advisor, both lacking in many records—and she also outlined other problems dealing with vocabulary, classification, and language.

The paper presented by Silvia Waisse and written by her, Ana Maria Alfonso-Goldfarb, and Marcia H. M. Ferraz explored the history of the CESIMA institute’s digital library project and the difficulties of classification of this library. She emphasized both the intellectual and technological hurdles that they have had to surmount. She began by pointing out how knowledge systems have undergone such vast change over the centuries, and why this has made it very difficult to build a coherent classification schema to cover topics in the history of science. New computational tools combined with human effort, she said, now make it possible to create a faceted system that will make the classification project more adequate.

Elise Hanrahan and Marcus Schnopf of the BBAW presented a fascinating paper on the work that their institution has done on digitizing and indexing archival resources, raising questions about current practices. One of the problems that Hanrahan pointed out is that scholars working on digital critical editions tend to vastly over-tag sources. When page images are readily available to everyone, for example, there is no need to describe every mark on a page, yet many scholars still do this. Over-tagging, she argues, is wasteful and time consuming. Schnopf’s questions were directed toward issues surrounding the interlinking of data between authority records and archival texts. Among the many projects that BBAW has developed, the Scalable Architecture for Digital Editions, is one that helps scholars do very useful interlinking of resources.

Dirk Wintergrün, head of IT at MPIWG, discussed in detail the various aspects of digital development, preservation, and publication for the Institute. Because the Institute is so heavily invested in disseminating the scholarship produced there, they have created many digital tools that give scholars open access to their resources. One theme that emerged from his talk was the need for institutions of this sort to adhere to open access and strict coding standards for sharing data. This, he explained, was behind the thinking of MPIWG’s development of new publication tools for the future of scholarship.

My paper raised questions about how and when to expand bibliographic citations to include internet resources. The problems are quite complex. What kinds of documents and resources are worthwhile to include—do we index websites, blogs, and twitter feeds just as we do books and articles? If we do include electronic media of this sort, at what level do we index it—is it worthwhile indexing individual posts for some blogs, for example, treating them, in essence, as academic journal articles? These questions raise the need to reexamine the purpose of bibliographies like the IsisCB in a digital age. What do we want them to do from now on?

The last paper by Gavan McCarthy, director of the e-Scholarship Research Centre, discussed the ways in which his team has been able to display data using on-the-fly visualizations. These visualizations reveal types of information about the resource that have been very difficult to extract until now. When dealing with big data of this sort, the ability to create visualizations is often hampered by the sheer size of the dataset, so bounding the set to a manageable size is essential. McCarthy made clear that this kind of visualization is at its infancy, and that the future is bright for this work.

During the discussion periods, a number of important notions came up. Urs Schoepflin, head of the MPIWG library, argued that classification has entered a new era with the advent of electronic resources. Libraries should not invest hours into classification systems, he contends, because this is the job of scholars who are better prepared to understand how and where objects should be placed. Moreover, different collections require different schemes to adequately address the topics. Furthermore, as scholarship changes, so must ways of access. The most useful approach to classification, Schoepflin contended, is to create very flexible and open systems that can be pulled together in different ways.

Following the conference, three members of the Committee traveled to Wolfenbüttel, Germany, to see the Herzog August Bibliothek, which is one of the most significant rare book libraries in Europe, having lost virtually none of its holding over the entire 500-year history of its existence. The pace at which they are digitizing and making records available to the public is phenomenal and impressed us with the extensive resources that Germany is devoting to cultural preservation and transmission.

Successful Symposia and Meeting of Commission on Bibliography and Documentation

The board of the Commission on Bibliography and Documentation. From left: Gavan McCarthy (Vice President for Archives), Silvia Waisse (Secretary), Birute Railiene (President), Stephen Weldon (Vice President for Bibliography), Amy Rodgers (Treasurer). (Photograph by Helen Morgan)

The board of the Commission on Bibliography and Documentation. From left: Gavan McCarthy (Vice President for Archives), Silvia Waisse (Secretary), Birute Railiene (President), Stephen Weldon (Vice President for Bibliography), Amy Rodgers (Treasurer). (Photograph by Helen Morgan)

On July 26 the IUHPST/DHST Commission on Bibliography and Documentation held its quadrennial congressional meeting in Manchester, UK. The meeting took place at the ICHSTM 2013 Conference, the 24th International Congress of History of Science. The Commission sponsored two symposia at this meeting and endorsed a third.

The session that it endorsed on Preserving Scientific Heritage was organized by Joe Anderson (American Institute of Physics) and Anne Barrett (Imperial College, London), and the papers that were presented in this two-session symposium demonstrated the critical necessity of supporting archival resources in our discipline. The symposium concluded with a panel discussion about the future of archival initiatives in an age of uncertain funding.

The Commission-sponsored session on New Perspectives on Classification was organized by Ana Maria Alfonso-Goldfarb (Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, Brazil) and Georges Métailié (Centre Alexandre Koyré, France). This session explored the complexity of classification systems that have been developed in different times and different cultures. The symposium delved into both historical questions about classification and current problems of information organization for our discipline. The CESIMA Institute in São Paulo is actively working on these problems with the Commission.

Finally, the Commission-organized session History of Science and the Ecology of Knowledge explored the way that knowledge in the discipline is used and distributed in many different “ecological niches.” The organizers, Birute Railiene (Wroblewski Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences) and Stephen Weldon (University of Oklahoma), brought together a diverse group of speakers with quite different perspectives on historical information and informatics, ranging from pedagogy and translation to bibliography and open access.

The week of activities concluded with an award ceremony in which prizes were given to several scholars. The main award was the Neu-Whitrow Prize. The prize was established this year by the Commission to honor the best bibliography, catalog, or finding aid produced in the last several years. The inaugural award went to Jennifer Rampling (University of Cambridge) for her erudite catalog of the George Ripley Corpus of alchemical writings. Second place went to Francesco Gerali (National Autonomous University of Mexico) for his inventory of the archive of Giovanni Capellini. Finally, Rod Home (Professor Emeritus, University of Melbourne) was honored for his distinguished work over his long career as historian to foster and improve bibliography for the discipline.

The Commission is twenty years old this year and is thriving. It oversees the development of the WHSO project, and endorses other efforts worldwide that support its mission. See the Commission web page to learn more about its goals and history.

Plans Discussed to Integrate Isis Bibliography and World History of Science Online

An international conference hosted by Isis Bibliographer and WHSO Chair Stephen Weldon was held on April 12-13, 2013, in Norman, Oklahoma. At the conference, several projects were proposed that would increase international access to the Isis Bibliography and encourage collaboration on bibliographical issues. Participants studied ways of integrating the Isis print-based bibliography with the index of the World History of Science Online.

The redevelopment of the WHSO in recent years always considered integration as a possibility. Weldon, for example, made sure that the indexing terms used for WHSO were drawn from the Isis thesaurus so that searches would bring up items with similar content.

It now appears that the technical capabilities exist to bring the two databases together. A prototype of an open-access version of the Isis Bibliography database was created at the eScholarship Research Centre at the University of Melbourne in preparation for the conference. Gavan McCarthy, director of the Centre, oversaw its development. Because the WHSO project uses the same OHRM technology as the Isis prototype, future integration between the two databases ought to be relatively easy.

The Isis CB 2.0 Conference, where this was discussed, was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the University of Oklahoma, and the History of Science Society. Participants came from institutions that have supported new digital scholarly tools, including the Wikimedia Foundation, the Center for History and New Media, the Indiana Philosophy Ontology Project, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and the Digital HPS Consortium.

The conference agenda, readings, and other information can be found at