Interdisciplinarity in the library

The following is a series of questions posed to me by a student in the Masters of Library Science program about interdisciplinary curators and library professionals.

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1) Can you describe your career path? What have been the changes and shifts? How did you end up doing the work you are doing now? Did you have any interdisciplinary influences?

How many hours do you have? Just kidding. Maybe. The history of science has always appealed to me as a rigorous way of being multidisciplinary, which is a characteristic also shared by the library field. So everything I’ve ever done relates to how I’ve come to be here, and you don’t have time or interest in an autobiography! Few people can predict their career paths; I know I certainly did not, although the angels watching over me in high school must have laughed over how obvious it would appear to me, eventually. For I pored over history of science materials in high school, and even audited a survey course in my local liberal arts college, without realizing that history of science might offer a career path distinct from science itself. As an undergraduate majoring in the sciences, pursuing a career in medicine, I took as many history and literature courses as I possibly could. As a high school science teacher, I did my best to incorporate materials from the history of science to make learning more meaningful. During those years, my first period with a steady income, I read avidly in cultural and intellectual history, including the history of art, philosophy and theology, as well as science. Then I chose to come to the history of science program that had the most generalist approach, along with the most original books. For my dissertation, I chose a multidisciplinary topic, and I started searching for an interdisciplinary position. Quite unexpectedly, I found myself working as an assistant to the curator of the OU History of Science Collections, and later became curator myself — serving a quintessentially interdisciplinary role in the campus community.

2) What are your personal areas of research? What area of study/disciplines/fields does your collection cover? What academic communities do your personal research and curatorial work bring you into contact with?

(a) My dissertation topic was historical thinking about Earth up until the time when geology emerged as a distinct discipline. In other words, what I pursued was not proto-disciplinary history, but rather how new disciplines emerge through multi-disciplinary reconfigurations. This aspect of the history of science has always appealed to me. I am currently conducting research on disciplinary relations between geology and other disciplines, including theology, in the Scottish intellectual tradition.

(b) The mission of the collection is to cover all periods, all geographic regions, and all subject areas in the history of science.

(c) Academically, the history of geology is a sub-discipline, which has close connections with history of science and with geology as well. For example, the Geological Society of America and the Geological Society of London, like most geological societies, have a History of Geology group. The International Commission on the History of the Geosciences (INHIGEO) is composed of both geologists and geo-historians. In addition, because my research topic extends beyond the bounds of history of geology, and in order to represent the history of science program here (which includes the collection but also an affiliated academic department), I have regularly participated in the History of Science Society, the Midwest Junto for the History of Science, and other more general history of science communities. In more recent years I have been adding a focus on science and religion, and participating in an affiliate organization with the American Academy of Religion. Finally, I have been regularly active in the digital humanities, and participated in various academic communities related to digital scholarship in the history of science. To my detriment, I have not prioritized organizations specific to the library field or curatorship per se.

3) What research areas do you keep current in? (or did you keep current in when you were a curator)? How do find and locate material from “outside” fields?

a) History of science, history of geology, history of theology, digital humanities.

b) Isis Bibliography; book reviews in academic journals relevant to each of the above and in the blogs of colleagues; personal correspondence and conversations with colleagues; tracing sources from footnotes in the books I’m reading; and quite lastly, publisher literature, emails, or booths at major conferences. (I have not in the last decade, to my knowledge, discovered a relevant source directly from a library catalog; rather, my searches there tend to be for known items. This is because of the specialized nature of advanced academic research, which suggests to me that finding materials from outside fields needs to rely on alternative methods, such as those listed here. There is no substitute for cultivating relationships which offer opportunities for in-depth conversations with people who are experts in those disciplines.)

4) How do you make decisions about how to build and promote the collection?

To build: In recent years, we have coordinated acquisitions to our strategy for exhibits and digital projects, considering all three in tandem, as legs of a stool. This means that strengthening a target area in our holdings has been an explicit criterion in the selection of exhibits. We also try to respond to requests from graduate students and faculty that help us to identify emerging research areas in the history of science.

To promote: Given the three-legged stool model just described, via exhibits and digital projects. We also use twitter to promote our holdings. Without educational outreach, I would not wish to be curator, so educational outreach must be included in any acceptable definition of “promotion.”

5) Who do you consider to be the audience of the collections? has that changed over time and if so, how?

We begin with the “first among equals” of our constituents: scholars (graduate students and faculty) in the affiliated academic department. If we meet their needs, then we are learning, testing and refining our ability to meet the needs of others, and they serve in many ways to amplify the reach of the collection. Other audiences include undergraduate students, the faculty and students of other departments, visiting scholars from around the world, campus guests, the wider public community, and educational groups from 3rd grade through senior citizens. This has not changed in my time as curator, although at different times we have varied greatly in our effectiveness in reaching these audiences.

6) Who are your colleagues? What role do they play in your research and/or curatorial work? How do you communicate with them? Do you interact with people from multiple disciplines?

My colleagues fall into various areas, including history of science; history of geology; theology; digital humanities; and curatorship. Conversation with them, in person at conferences or via video chat, and communication via email, is a near-daily occurrence. In all these fields I have organized conference sessions, and participated in many more events, to foster these conversations. Apart from such conversations no meaningful interdisciplinary research can be attempted; we would only be ejecting void thoughts into the greater void of deep space. This interdisciplinary collegiality is also characteristic of the Department of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, which represents a great diversity of interests, methodologies and perspectives rather than a concentration of faculty with a single area of emphasis.

7) What do you find to be easy about interdisciplinary work? What is difficult?

It’s never easy, but it may be exciting. By definition, understanding other points of view is difficult. It requires an openness to others, an eagerness to encounter and understand the new, the different, and the unfamiliar. As Einstein said, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” One must not hold back. Learning to welcome personal and institutional change is a helpful form of preparatory self-discipline. Anything that stimulates one’s imagination is a start.

8) From your experience with Duane Roller how would you describe his approach to interdisciplinary work?

Even in his pedagogy Duane was multidisciplinary. For instance, he taught via meticulously-scripted slide shows using carousel projectors. Duane began every lecture with physical maps so we would understand the particular geographic setting of the episode we were about to study. Then he would show color slides of the landscape as one approached the location today, followed by a tour of the site’s architecture or remaining ruins. Artwork and other cultural artifacts would further attune us to our topic before we would even begin to engage the figure and scientific activity of the lesson. We never studied the history of science in a vacuum apart from broader cultural history.

In developing the collection, Duane defined its scope as broadly as possible. He did not collect merely the scientific books of Newton, but also Newton’s books on theology and history. In general, the goal was to acquire every book ever written by a figure of scientific interest, regardless of the subject area, in order to allow the researcher today to step back into the world of the author and not merely the science of the time. It was in this spirit that the second curator, Marilyn Ogilvie, was able to extend the collection to cover emerging areas of interest underemphasized by Duane, such as alchemy, astrology and women in science.

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