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In earlier posts, I talked about building a new state-of-the-art bibliographical research platform. I have been thinking of this as the Isis CB 2.0.
In this post, I want to focus on one aspect of my thinking: namely, how to redesign the digital interface. I want to design a way of interacting with the bibliographical data that opens up new possibilities for research. I hope that this post will encourage readers to respond in the comments section with ideas about what format that new design can take.
Data visualization plays an enormous role in current thinking about how to discover data, so I am thinking about ways in which the display of bibliographical data will help answer common historical questions.
As I look at search interfaces around the web, I am struck by how much work still needs to be done in this area. I feel as though most of them remain fixed in a single way of thinking about database research. Most people look at a bibliographical database and think about it only as a place to find lists of citations, and most search engines have been built to accomplish this. Some sites are better than others, but on the whole, the entire paradigm centers on the display of lists of books and articles.
But what if we start to think about the bibliographical dataset as more than an archive of citations?
Let me give you an example of what I am talking about. One common use of a bibliographical database is to find information about authors. In this case the specific bibliographical information becomes secondary, simply a way of learning about the people who write the articles. Review editors at journals use bibliographies for this kind of work all the time. The first I paid attention to this was when I worked as a managing editor at the journal Isis, and I observed the editors scan the Cumulative Bibliography in search of reviewers for books and article submissions. But this practice is not limited to journal editors. I find historians doing this type of person search all the time.
Given that, wouldn’t it be useful to have a bibliographical tool that provided an author discovery option? With an author results list, publication patterns could be viewed and compared against each other, and one could more quickly learn about the authors. WorldCat.org has a way of displaying author information pages that have some of the characteristics I'm thinking of (see the Identities page for I. B. Cohen, for example), but it is not comparative. We cannot see more than one author at a time.
A similar option could be developed for those who wanted to find out more information about publishers of books or about the characteristics of journals based on the publications that each of these has produced.
If we begin to think outside of the standard framework, we can imagine a host of useful tools. We can begin designing search engines that do more sophisticated information processing than simply displaying lists of citations.
One can look around the web and find a number of efforts in new directions. There are visualizations of one sort or another that display bibliographical information as topic maps, for example. PubMed has a topic map visualization service (Knalij) that shows clusters of citations and how they are related to each other based on their subject tags. OCLC has an interesting tool (WorldCat Identities Network) that displays data this way as well. Are these sorts of tools helpful? If so, how? If not, why not?
In closing, let me ask again for your feedback. Please tell me what you think would be an ideal search engine for the Isis Bibliography. Tell me what discovery platforms you think I could learn from. I want to find ways of pushing the boundaries of research in the digital environment.
The text below is excerpted from the paper “The Isis Bibliography, 1966-2000” presented by John Neu, Editor Emeritus, Isis Current Bibliography at session T1: “The Isis Bibliography and the Profession: Past, Present, and Future” on Thursday, November 28, 2013, at the History of Science Society Annual Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts. If you would like to read the full text of the talk, you can find it here.
I won’t go into detail on the technical production of the bibliography. I have tried for years to forget the transition, computer-illiterate as I was then, from Selectrix-typewriter-produced 5-by-7 cards, numbered by hand, to my first desktop computer, shared with several others in the library (the Super Brain, it was called, about the size of a refrigerator), to camera-ready copy created in my own office. To do this I had only the part-time assistance, provided by the library, of one very moody programmer (not Peter Sobol, my savior when compiling the cumulative bibliographies). The first bibliography I published with the references in electronic format was the 1975 CB. Later I converted the 1974 CB to electronic format, so the Isis Current Bibliography references included in the online database you now all use starts with the 1974 bibliography.
The first ten-year cumulative bibliography I compiled (1966-1975) was done without the aid of the computer, since these records were not in electronic format. This was a difficult task, as it involved rearranging thousands of 5-by-7 cards into a new classification system and sending the cards to a publisher in London for photographing. But for the next two ten-year cumulations (1976-1985 and 1986-1995), I had the invaluable programming assistance and computer skills of Peter Sobol, who devised the complicated programs needed to sort, index, and print the records according to [Magda] Whitrow’s detailed classification system. Whitrow’s codes were used later as well. When the bibliographies were made available on-line by the Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN), the codes were translated into searchable subject terms.
(Here I’d like to acknowledge the help Neale Watson gave me when he produced so beautifully the mammoth four volumes of the 86 to 95 cumulation with his Science History Publications.)
While working on the printed cumulative bibliographies, I also began working with the Research Libraries Information Network to put all of the electronic records of the Current Bibliography into a database available to users online. Henry Lowood, who was editing the bibliography in Technology and Culture, had already done so with that bibliography, and the proposal was to join the two bibliographies. This was accomplished, and the HST database, with each new CB added annually, became available for the most part through research libraries subscribing with RLIN to the combined database. Unfortunately, the subscription rate was quite high, affordable only by larger institutions, thus severely limiting access to the database for students and historians not in a large academic program. After much discussion, RLIN agreed to make the database available free to members of the History of Science Society and, as I recall, members of the Society for the History of Technology.
With the RLIN database accomplished, Nate Reingold, on behalf of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science Committee on Bibliography and Documentation, asked that I attend a meeting of that committee in Trent, Italy to discuss the present state and future of bibliography and documentation in the field. That meeting, chaired by Renato Mazzolini, was attended by other bibliographers: Henry Lowood, for one, and the bibliographers who compiled the Italian bibliography for the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence. It was at this meeting, and a subsequent one chaired by Rod Home, that we decided to work with RLIN to add the annual Italian bibliography to the HST database, as well any other national bibliographies, of which there were several, that might wish to join. We did manage to add the Italian bibliography and, later on, the bibliography compiled by the Wellcome Museum of the History of Medicine in London.
This week, I take a brief look at a few sites that seem to herald the future of documentation in the digital environment. My earlier post about the World History of Science Online ended with a comment about the need to index digital resources. Behind that comment was a general concern about the role of scholars in indexing and documenting the web.
One resource that a colleague brought to my attention the other day was a review of archives done by the people at Dissertation Reviews. If you have not been to that site, DR is worth a look. It provides descriptive reviews of dissertations in the humanities, and it has eight scholars in science studies who manage reviews in our field.
What I had not known until now was that they also have reviews of archives. These reviews describe not only the content of the archives, but how to get to them and what to expect when you get there. There are over eighty in-depth archive reviews on this site.
Another popular site, H-NET, is an especially useful place to find online reviews. The reviews here can cover all kinds of resources, ranging from audio and video materials to conferences to software and websites. In other words, H-NET is well positioned to provide documentation of the kind I’m talking about. It recognizes that scholarship takes many different forms these days. Unfortunately, I found no H-SCI material in any category other than “print.” Clearly, we have work to do.
Just how much work there is can be gleaned by looking at the ECHO database hosted by the Center for History and New Media. This site best represents the kind of indexing I’m aspiring to produce with WHSO. It has over 5000 entries on websites in the history of science, technology, and industry. It is well indexed, and the descriptive notes are often quite extensive. The problem here is that the site seems not to have been updated since 2007.
My point in looking at these three sites is that scholars are already designing discovery tools for all kinds of digital materials. These are sites built and run by scholars. What we most need now, I believe, are ways of sustaining these tools and building new ones that keep up with advancing technologies.
In other words, I don’t advocate simply transferring last century’s bibliographic methods to the web—because that usually results in awkward and inadequate tools—what I want to see is scholars taking charge of this new environment, making sure that we continue to have resources that have the rigor and stability necessary for scholarly work.
The other day, I was looking through the book Atlas of Science: Visualizing What We Know (MIT Press, 2010) by Katy Börner, a fascinating big-data look at science for historians. It gave me the idea of playing around with visualizations of my own using the Isis Bibliography data. What I’ve produced here are quite unsophisticated by comparison, but they raise interesting questions nonetheless.
What you see in the accompanying images are a few pie charts that show the disciplinary strengths of the Isis Bibliography based on data from 2002 to 2013. They arise out of the subject classification scheme that I set up when I began working on the bibliography. You can find that scheme in its entirety here.
I am tempted to talk about what these charts tell us, but I find that I can’t do that yet. Instead, I will focus here on what questions these charts encourage us to ask. (I highlight this difference because I believe visualizations can be very useful in the discovery process, inspiring us to develop new research agendas. This is a point that often gets forgotten when people see a graph as a QED moment, rather than the depiction of a pattern to be investigated.)
So, let’s think about some of those questions. To what extent are these pie charts telling us about the bibliography itself? It should be clear that part of what we see in these charts is an artifact of the quirks of my classification scheme. Part of it reflects my own choices about whether a work falls into one category or another. And part of it arises out of where my assistants and I have looked for and found publications to include. It is important to consider these factors in order to be able to properly interpret the charts, but they don’t take us very far.
When we take those bibliographical constraints into account, I suspect that we’ll be able to see much more. In particular, what are the charts telling us about the way that the discipline of history of science is structured? By looking at the strengths and weaknesses in the distribution of research areas, we can begin to think about why some subjects are more popular than others.
The most interesting questions, in my view, concern the network of historians working today. What are the institutions supporting historical research and how have they helped to shape our scholarly productions? How have particularly productive scholars and specific research programs shaped the picture? These charts lead us to ask questions that will force us to dig down into the data, that will take us to specific people and institutions. Suddenly, our own discipline’s history begins to open up before us.
Finally, what do these charts tell us about the distribution of resources among the sciences? In other words, what can we learn about scientific practice itself by taking a big-picture view of patterns in the work of historians of science? It must say something. After all, historical research doesn’t get done unless there are archives, journals, and records produced and preserved by scientists.
Trying to disentangle all of these questions is a major research task, but one, it seems, that we should begin working on if we want to better understand what it is we do and if we want to learn how to do it better.
This past week the journal Isis published a symposium that I organized entitled "Ordering the Discipline: Classification in the History of Science." The five articles in this symposium are all part of the Focus Section, which you can access through the Isis table of contents.
By a standing agreement with the History of Science Society, the University of Chicago Press has made every issue's Focus Section open access, so you should have no trouble reading these five pieces. Indeed, I would urge anyone not familiar with Isis to browse the Focus Section articles over the past ten years because they provide a portrait of the main intellectual currents in the field. (I used the Isis Focus Sections in precisely this way in a presentation this past April on research trends at a Linda Hall Library webinar entitled Collections Forum on Science, Technology, and Engineering; my talk begins at 35 minutes into the video.)
This issue's Focus Section on classification deals with a subject that I have been grappling with from the moment I started editing the bibliography: namely, how does one classify the sciences (present and past) as well as the many historiographical approaches to science. This symposium goes far beyond my own questions, however, and considers taxonomic issues in several ways that are foreign to the problems faced by a subject bibliographer.
After a brief introductory article, I have a longer historical piece that addresses classification by exploring the institutional development of the Isis Bibliography. My article is followed by a piece written by Ana Maria Alfonso-Goldfarb and her colleagues at the Cesima Centro Simão Mathias; they provide a study of how people over the ages have tackled problems in classifying the sciences. Following this, Joseph Anderson at the American Institute of Physics explains how archival collections have come to be organized, pointing out the vast differences between archival and bibliographical classification. Finally, Colin Allen and his team of scholars at the Indiana Philosophy Ontology project talk about the tools that they are building to serve a radically new and more ontologically complex digital scholarly environment.
Readers of my blog will not be surprised that one underlying theme in each of these articles is how the digital environment is changing the way classification is done. Classification is not going away any time soon. Far from it.
Many of you know that in addition to editing the Isis Bibliography, I am also chair of the World History of Science Online (WHSO). This project is designed to help scholars find digital resources in the history of science. It was started a decade ago at an expert meeting in Paris. I recently wrote a brief history of this organization, which has just been published in Acta Baltica. (You can get the full text at their site, and you might also find Birute Railiene's article on bibliographic control interesting as well.)
The World History of Science Online is hosted at the University of Melbourne's eScholarship Research Centre under the direction of Gavan McCarthy. In recent years McCarthy has been working on public projects funded by the government of Australia and as a result has developed state-of-the-art facilities and a highly trained staff. McCarthy and his team understand how and why historians work as they do, and their work is aimed at ensuring that scholarly resources are preserved in historically appropriate ways.
History of science is benefiting greatly because of their help both with WHSO and with my plans to build an open-access Isis Bibliograpy. I suggest you also take a look at some of their other resources, such as The Encyclopedia of Australian Science. Indeed, one fascinating resource that McCarthy helped make possible appeared just two weeks ago: a digital archive of an amateur scientist in Australia. The site has the intriguing title Stories in Stone: an annotated history and guide to the collections and papers of Ernest Westlake (1855-1922). It is edited by Rebe Taylor.
Resources like these are burgeoning on the web, and we desperately need to document and index them. McCarthy and I have designed WHSO to do precisely this. And two years ago, I found a small amount of funds to hire two graduate students to help me correct and add lists of resources to the project, but I have not had the staff support to be able to build the project since then.
So I'll close this post with a pitch for support. Let's start a discussion about building a robust index of online resources. I would be more than happy to talk with people about organizing ways to sustain WHSO as an "Isis Bibliography" for the internet. I believe that crowd-sourcing is one way we might be able to move forward if we develop the proper interface.
Your ideas are welcome.
The Isis Bibliography is celebrating its 100th birthday this year at the History of Science Society's Annual Meeting in Boston. I have planned two public activities: one academic, the other social.
Starting off the conference, the very first session (T1) is a set of papers on "The Isis Bibliography and the Profession: Past, Present, and Future." We have a unique lineup of presenters spanning the generations. The writers range from a recent bachelor's degree recipient to the editor emeritus of the Bibliography.
Past interim editor Joy Harvey (Independent Scholar) begins with an introduction that explores George Sarton's papers to learn more about his work on the bibliography. John Neu (Isis Bibliography, Editor Emeritus) will talk about his term as editor from 1966 to 2000. Robert K. Olson (University of King's College, Halifax) explores how he used the Bibliography as a primary resource in his undergraduate thesis to tell the history of our discipline. Amy Rodgers and I (both University of Oklahoma) will look more deeply at our April survey results. And Alain Towaide (Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions and Smithsonian Institution) will get us thinking about the future of history of science bibliography.
There will also be a reception celebrating the centennial of the Isis Bibliography and honoring Neu's long editorship of the journal. I hope that friends of the Bibliography and friends of John Neu will show up after the distinguished lecture on Friday evening and enjoy hors d'oeuvres, a drink, and some good conversation.
"Establishing open access … requires the active commitment of each and every individual producer of scientific knowledge and holder of cultural heritage."
In my last post, I talked about Open Access and the Library of Congress, which is an essential resource for my work. Today, I explain my goals and the challenges I face as I work to develop a more robust Open Access model for the Isis Bibliography.
I have two main reasons for advocating Open Access: to provide a tool for scholars in areas where resources are more scarce, especially those people outside of the North American-Western European sphere; and to bring the Bibliography in line with the ideals of scholarship as a public service, open to all.
When I started my term as editor of the Isis Bibliography in 2002, people could access it in only two ways: either via a personal subscription to Isis when one joined the History of Science Society, or by visiting a library that subscribed to either the print journal or the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine database (HSTM).
The problem is that the distribution in these forms is very small. Only about 8 percent of Isis subscriptions go scholars and libraries outside of Europe and North America. More disappointing, only 9 institutions in total (out of 113) have subscriptions to the database in these areas of the world. In other words, international access to the Bibliography is tiny.
A few years ago, the HSS and OCLC agreed to make the Isis data public on the OCLC’s WorldCat.org service. Although this interface has many limitations, and it is not a substitute for the HSTM database, it serves the wider international community as never before. The HSS also now offers free PDF downloads of the annual bibliographies.
Open Access must be sustainable, however, which means that economics plays a major role. In order to do it responsibly, we must have institutional support that will not decline. The Isis Bibliography relies on several institutions: the History of Science Society, whose membership dues help pay salary and operation costs; the University of Oklahoma, where I work and which provides infrastructure support and staff salary; the University of Chicago Press, which publishes the journal Isis; EBSCO, which hosts the subscription service; and OCLC, with its WorldCat.org service.
As I begin building a new Open Access platform, offering the bibliographical records as a linked open dataset, other institutions will be involved as well, especially the University of Melbourne’s eScholarship Research Centre.
As long as these institutions recognize the importance of the public scholarship model and the real intellectual benefits of sharing this work widely, the modest costs of sustaining the Bibliography can be met easily. Scholars must continue to support their academic societies that make public projects like this possible. Public universities must continue to put their money behind efforts directed toward public benefit. And publishers of journals and database resources must be willing to allow these kinds of alternative venues for distribution.
Readers interested in the economics of Open Access in the field of history should see the last chapter of Roy Rosenzweig’s Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age (Columbia University Press, 2011).
Incidentally, the sixth annual International Open Access Week begins on October 17.
“…to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”
--Mission of the Library of Congress
When the United States government shutdown last night, I did not expect it would have an immediate effect on the Isis Bibliography. Today, I found that I was wrong. My staff and I access the Library of Congress website frequently, yet the building and the website are closed now until the government gets back up and running.
I consult the website for many reasons. Sometimes I look at their catalog records to check the accuracy of a citation, but more frequently—several times each week—my staff and I consult the Library's rich authority files in order to accurately spell a name, find birth and death dates, or decide on the best word for classifying a subject.
Starting today that is impossible. What we find when we attempt to go to the site is the following screen:
The moment I saw that message, it dawned on me how much I rely on this public resource. I know that many other people, organizations, and businesses are going to be hit just as I have been. This public institution helps to sustain our work. Without it we are impoverished.
In an earlier post, I wrote enthusiastically about the open access movement. Since 2009, the Library has been at the forefront of this movement by exposing its authority lists as Linked Open Data. By giving the world such a carefully curated list of millions of names and terms the library is performing an extraordinary public service and encouraging innovation and creativity.
The point is that open access does not just happen on its own. The economics of open access demands a vibrant public sector. When we find vital public resources blacked out, as we do today, we understand better what we are missing.
It is ironic that the first part of the Library's mission statement is "to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties." Just when they need them the most....