ABout the Isis Bibliography

The first installment of the Isis Bibliography was published in 1913 by the Belgian scholar George Sarton when he printed the first issue of his journal Isis. Since that time, the bibliography has taken a number of different forms, and an estimated 400,000+ works in the history of science have been indexed and classified over its century-long history.

Sarton’s bibliographies in the early years were part of his effort to establish a new discipline in history of science. In that regard, the Bibliography served as a powerful tool to bring scholars together. The Bibliography helped to show that history of science was a coherent discipline, fostering communication among scholars across the globe in a common enterprise.

After forty years of work, Sarton retired, and a committee of scholars took over the task of compiling the bibliography, which they did for over a decade before University of Wisconsin librarian John Neu assumed editorship in the late 1960s. With the help of a graduate research assistant from UW’s History of Science Department, Neu edited the Bibliography for over three decades.

From Neu’s time until the late 1990s, the History of Science Society also sponsored the publication of a periodic Cumulative Bibliography that indexed the annual bibliographies together in a single work, making an easier to use research tool. The first of these cumulative bibliographies indexed all of the installments from 1913 to 1965 and was produced at Imperial College in London by the classification specialist Magda Whitrow.

The hardcopy cumulative editions were succeeded by the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine database, which was made available to libraries and institutions as an electronic resource accessible via the Internet. HSTM, as it is abbreviated, contains bibliography files form several organizations related to the history of science. Currently, the HSTM database is hosted by EBSCO.

In 2002, Stephen Weldon at the University of Oklahoma took over the production of the bibliography and continues to oversee the print and digital edition. Today, the Bibliography is supported by both the History of Science Society and the University of Oklahoma. Weldon has two to three research assistants each year who help him produce an annual bibliography of about 4000 classified items each year along with over 1000 indexed book reviews. He is assisted by a board of scholarly advisors as well as several scholars who contribute entries in specific areas.

The social importance of the CB

In 1947, Sarton remarked on the social importance of the bibliography to the development of the field: “To my mind the essential part of Isis is the C.B. [Critical Bibliography]; it is because of the C.B. that I founded Isis and made great sacrifices. That is clear enough. If a no. contains, say, 12 papers, it can interest directly only a small number of scholars; the C.B. may contain 1,000 items some of which must satisfy every scholar.” It is that motivation that underlays the current development of the larger IsisCB enterprise, involving both print and digital projects.

Sarton implicitly understood that in order for a discipline to thrive, scholars must have access to each other’s work, and that a bibliography had a social function, not just a pragmatic one. As the current bibliographer, Weldon’s goal is to maintain both social and pragmatic purpose of Sarton’s original mission.

For more information about the Isis Bibliography and its history, please see the following resources:
Stephen P. Weldon, “Bibliography Is Social: Organizing Knowledge in the Isis Bibliography from Sarton to the Early Twenty-First Century,” part of a Focus Section on “Ordering the Discipline: Classification in the History of Science,” Isis (September 2013), pp. 540-550.[link]

Stephen P. Weldon, “The Isis Bibliography from Its Origins to the Present Day: One Hundred Years of Evolution of a Classification System” Circumscribere 6 (2009): 26-46. [link]