Documenting History of Science on the Web

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.

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