AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXVIII, No. 1, Spring 1996

 

Progress towards an International Bibliographical Database in the History of Science and Technology, and Medicine

by R.W. Home

Valuable information on the history of science, technology and medicine is published in a very wide variety of journals, so that retrieving relevant material has always been a vexing problem. There are now hopes of a solution with the aid of technology itself. This was the subject of a a workshop on bibliographical tools, sponsored by the Commission on Bibliography and Documentation of the Division of History of Science of the International Union for History and Philosophy of Science, held at Liège, Belgium, on 25-26 September 1995. Hosted by Professor Robert Halleux of the Université de Liège, the meeting brought together the compilers of many of the leading bibliographies covering aspects of current work in the history of science, technology and medicine that are published on a serial basis throughout the world, plus a number of interested historians of science. At an earlier meeting held at Trento, Italy, in 1992, a proposal had been advanced to make the information contained in these bibliographies more widely available by developing a unified international bibliographical database in electronic form. The Liège meeting was intended to advance this project.

Some of the most important existing bibliographies are already available on-line. The meeting saw impressive demonstrations of the History of Science and Technology (HST) file maintained by the Research Libraries Group (RLG) in the USA and made available through the Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN) subscription service, and of the on-line version of the Italian national bibliography of the history of science, Bibliografia Italiana di Storia della Scienza (BISS). The HST file includes the bibliographies of the history of science published annually in Isis since 1976, and the bibliographies of the history of technology published in Technology and Culture since 1987. The electronic file has a variety of indexes that are not available in the better-known paper versions, and may be searched by subject or title word as well as alphabetical phrase listing.

The meeting was told that an agreement has recently been signed that will see the very large French database, FRANCIS, that includes the bibliographies of the history of science formerly published in the Bulletin signaleacute;tique series, mounted on RLIN. Once this is done, RLG and INIST, the organization responsible for FRANCIS, could explore the possibility of adding a copy of the history of science segment to the existing HST file, thus very considerably enriching the latter. In addition, negotiations are well advanced to add the BISS database to the HST file, while also leaving it available free through the Internet.

The meeting noted that several other bibliographies are produced regularly, some on a national basis (e.g., for Australia, Belgium, Spain), others covering specific subject areas in the history of science (e.g., astronomy, oceanography, scientific instruments). Unfortunately the bibliography of Russian work in the history of science and technology that was published for many years by the Institute for the History of Science and Technology in Moscow seems recently to have ceased.

The meeting was told that the future of the history of science segment of FRANCIS was far from secure, and it was agreed that the Commission on Bibliography and Documentation should make representations to the relevant French authorities. It was noted that at present, no bibliographies are being regularly produced covering the work being done by several major national or regional groups of historians of science and technology, including those in India, Latin America and the Muslim world. The lack of systematic bibliographical coverage of German-language publications was particularly striking.

The meeting considered at length the means by which the proposed database might be made accessible to users. For individual compilers simply to put their products out freely would be a recipe for chaos: active management of the files, such as is provided for the HST database on RLIN, will become more and more necessary as more files are brought into the scheme. This, however, generates costs which, in the case of RLIN, are covered by the fees paid by institutional subscribers to the service. (The fee payable currently varies from US $570 to $900 per annum for up to five simultaneous users, or $1,480 to $2,610 for up to 25 simultaneous users, depending on whether the subscribing institution is a member of RLG and on whether the HST subscription is linked to RLG's RLIN Bibliographic database.) These costs would have to be met in some way, however the scheme were to be run. At the same time, it was agreed that it was important to ensure that access to the scheme was not confined to the privileged few but that it was open to all potential users. At present, some 61 institutions, mostly universities through their libraries, subscribe to the service and provide free access to users within that institution. The possibility was noted of a consortium of libraries taking out a combined subscription to RLIN's HST file, as had been done by a group of 18 university libraries in Ohio and by a group of university libraries in Australia, in each case substantially reducing the subscription that had to be paid by individual participating libraries. The RLG representative at the meeting, John Haeger, indicated that his organization would also be prepared to explore other options that would help reduce the cost to individual users. (RLIN also carries a database of information on archives; see article.)

Following extensive discussion the meeting agreed to report to the Executive Committee of the Division of History of Science the Commission's aim of creating a world bibliographical database of current work in the history of science, technology and medicine, and to recommend that the existing HST file on RLIN be used as the starting point of the proposed database. The commission would endorse efforts by different European partners to initiate or develop on-line bibliographical works in this field with the support of the European Union. European members of the Commission agreed to put forward a project to the European Union, seeking finance to set up a common database. This partnership would initially involve Belgium France, Germany, Italy and Spain, and would subsequently incorporate the other countries of the Union and ultimately other European nations.

The meeting noted that a set of bibliographical guidelines needed to be prepared for the proposed international database, that could be made available to all national or other teams planning to elaborate a bibliography with a view to having it incorporated in the international database. A working group was appointed to define these guidelines. Once the guidelines are agreed, the Commission will make them available to all interested groups. Anyone wishing to be sent a copy should contact Dr. Lowood, joint secretary of the Commission, at Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, CA 94305-6004, USA (FAX: 415-725-1068; e-mail: henry.lowood@forsythe.stanford.edu). For other information contact R.W. Home, Department of History & Philosophy of Science, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria 3052, Australia.


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