New Perspectives on Classification and Methodology

New perspectives on classification and methodology in history of science:
Theoretical and technological bases for the construction of adequate search tools — Completed

Centre Simão Mathias of Studies in History of Science (CESIMA)/Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, Brazil

 Centre Simão Mathias for Studies in the History of Science (CESIMA) at Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP) was founded in 1994 as the first Latin-American research centre specialised in the history of science. However, a major obstacle hindered CESIMA goals, to wit, the primary sources for the history of science are not renewable goods, whereas the lion’s share of the sources needed was (and still is) hosted by libraries and research centres in Europe and the United States. Therefore, without travelling to such locations, a Latin American scholar could not expect to develop a promising career except in the history of local science. For this reason, the first task of CESIMA was to establish a Digital Library comprising digitised versions of primary sources.

Our collection currently comprises more than 30,000 titles in all fields of science from antiquity to the present time. The items were acquired as microforms and digitised, or in original digital format. Documents include books, correspondences, laboratory notebooks, meeting records, memoirs, personal notes, maps, images, journals, dictionaries, and encyclopaedias, among others.

The technical issues related with digitisation, storage, and server access are well advanced. However, a serious problem hinders the completion of this project, namely, the criteria for indexing and cataloguing the collection to allow users locate and retrieve the items they need. The systems available are not well suited to history of science, as they lead to serious distortions and anachronism. In addition, the so-called “digital revolution” made this problem even more acute in the last decade, as access to information increases exponentially, whereas the search engines available lack the specificity needed for scholarly research in history of science.

We addressed these issues at an international seminar CESIMA hosted in 2008, where indexing and cataloguing were a focus of particular attention. Discussions continued the following year at the meeting of Committee of Bibliography and Documentation (CBD) of International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science (IUHPS) at Budapest, and a two-session special round table conducted at the Annual Meeting of the History of Science Society, in Phoenix. Further discussions with the members of project World History of Science Online (WHSO) led us to submit a proposal to the Brazilian National Council of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). Coordinated with WHSO, this project aimed at developing theoretical and methodological tools for search engines adequate to the specific needs of historians of science. It is worth to observe that this call was massive, and ours was one among the only eight projects in the Humanities approved. Analysis of some specific topics, namely the so-called trees of knowledge, is also a relevant part of our latest five-year project funded by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).

For the last two years, CESIMA staff, which includes science historians, librarians, bibliographers, postgraduate students, and specialists in information technology (IT) worked very hard. Activities included regular meetings for discussion, and thorough analysis of the literature on indexing and cataloguing. Also workshops and seminars were conducted, with the participation of reputed specialists in information science.

Based on some pilot tests, initially our project aimed at the inclusion of history of science in the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC). We were particularly interested in Class 4, which is vacant, and that we believed could be attributed to “Interdisciplinary Areas”, history of science among them. However, the conclusion of the specialists who advised us, including a representative of the Brazilian UDC office, was that we should apply for history of science as such to be attributed Class 4.

This option, however, would not solve two major problems: 1) the singularity of the documents with which historians of science deal; and 2) the intrinsically interdisciplinary nature of history of science, which the model developed by CESIMA characterises as comprising three spheres of studies, to wit: 1) a sphere proper to documents themselves, and the analysis of the ideas they contain (epistemological sphere); 2) the sphere corresponding to the specific historical-social contexts in which such documents were produced (socio-historical sphere); and 3)  a sphere that links the former two together, as it addresses properly historiographical aspects (historiographical sphere).

This threefold approach led us to identify a series of problems. Specialists agree on that one of the major challenges posed by interdisciplinarity is the language common to the members of a research team, or to an interdisciplinary field as a whole. Then, even were an adequate controlled vocabulary to be elaborated, we do not know whether it would truly solve the problem posed by the documents proper to history of science. For instance, would a controlled vocabulary represent accurately the meaning the words used to designate the various fields of science had along history? Some major libraries prudently elude this issue, and add the qualification “before 1800” to such fields.

At this point, we had no choice but to revise the available systems of classification. Among them, the Colon Classification, formulated by Indian mathematician S. R. Ranganathan (1872-1972) seemed the most suitable to our needs, due to two main reasons, to wit: the inclusion of interdisciplinarity as a major element of the system, and the notion of interdisciplinarity Ranganathan employed.

The application of a faceted model makes the organization of knowledge no longer a mere taxonomy of disciplines, but incorporates the patterns of thought and behaviour of a definite human society inserted in a particular crossroads in space and time. While the discipline-based system fitted well with the traditional models of knowledge, and distribution of books across material shelves, the faceted approach crosses over disciplinary boundaries, and admits virtual support, thus fitting our informational society as a glove. It is worth to stress that although history of science is an interdisciplinary field of studies by nature and origin, its organization followed the discipline-based model up to the present time, while material shelves seemed the natural locus for its working materials.

CESIMA staff, comprising bibliographers, specialists in IT, and historians of science is currently developing specific software and feeding a database to run the initial pilot tests, the results of which are expected to be available by the first semester of 2014.   

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