Digital Humanities in History and Philosophy of Science

This past weekend, I attended the Digital HPS conference hosted by Bill Newman and Wally Hooper on the beautiful Indiana University campus in Bloomington. The conference was, I believe, the fourteenth meeting of a group of historians and philosophers of science who are building digital tools and doing cutting edge “big data” research. They have formed the Digital HPS Consortium. Each year, members of this group meet to discuss their work and share their expertise and knowledge with each other and newcomers. This was the first time I met with them.

The papers varied widely in what they discussed. Some presentations detailed activities taking place in different countries. Scott Walter (University of Lorraine), for example, spoke on the state of the digital humanities in France. Other papers outlined the progress of long-running ventures such as The Chymistry of Isaac Newton and the Darwin Correspondence Project.


Many of the papers looked at methods of analyzing big data. Scott Weingart (Indiana University) used co-citation analysis to argue that the field of history and philosophy of science has a clear disciplinary coherence. (See image at right from his blog.) Colin Allen (Indiana University, InPho) demonstrated computational techniques for data mining thousands of books digitized in the Hathi Trust. He showed that these methods could discover texts with quite similar content by filtering out most of the noise.

I was at the meeting to discuss the outline a new project I am starting, the Isis Document Indexing Platform, a tool that will create a new interface for the Isis bibliographical data. I gave the paper with Sylwester Ratowt, who has worked as the technical consultant on the Isis Bibliography since 2002. We discussed the technical basis for this project, which I will describe more fully in a later post (for background, see the website for the Isis CB 2.0 Conference.). The Isis Platform is designed to do a number of things: it will provide much wider access to the bibliography; it will link my records to outside library and archive authorities; it will create an open, linked dataset accessible through an API; it will index a full-text repository; and it will include social media components for compiling and sharing bibliographical information.

Since the Isis project is still in the development stage, the Digital HPS Conference was extremely helpful. Sylwester and I were able to get invaluable assistance on building specific aspects of the platform. I had detailed discussions with colleagues who shared their expertise and promised to share code that would expedite my work.

Throughout the conference, I was struck by everyone’s willingness to give freely of their ideas and their tools. It was clear that most of the projects discussed here were collaborative ventures between several scholars, and many collaborations crossed institutional boundaries. A spirit of openness was the most prominent characteristic of the conference.

The conference left me encouraged about my work on the Isis Platform and even more so about the state of the field of digital humanities in history and philosophy of science. Much good work is being done, and there is a growing culture of expertise that people are anxious to share with others. Anyone with aspirations of working on digital projects will benefit from what these scholars have already done.

–Stephen P. Weldon (from Bloomington, Indiana)

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