Lists, lists and more lists
As someone engaged in research in the humanities I find that I am often making lists of books about particular authors, periods, and themes. A single publication will often appear in more than one list. For example, I may wish to include Frederick Beiser’s The Romantic Imperative in a list of books about Novalis, a list of books about Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, a list about the Early German Romantics, a list of books about German philosophy to be recommended to a non-specialist reader, and so on.
It is not only individual researchers who make such lists. Those who teach often create and update lists of publications for their students. Large bibliographic indexes, such as the subscription-based Philosopher’s Index, are useful references for those looking into what has been published on a given topic. Books, articles and personal websites contain lists of related or recommended publications. These can be alphabetical, or organised by subject or author. They can be annotated with comments and summaries or left alone. They can be actively curated or printed and never revisited.
Though they may be easy to overlook, lists of publications are an absolutely critical part of scholarship. They articulate the contours of a body of knowledge, and define the scope and focus of scholarly enquiry in a given domain. Furthermore such lists are always changing. Books and articles are published and translated all the time. Works fall in and out of fashion. ‘Secondary’ reference works can become obsolete – considered interesting more for what they say about a particular intellectual period than what they say about their subject matter. (As an aside: I always wanted to scan and compare reading lists from the Cambridge Philosophy Faculty Library for as far back as they exist – to get a sense of the changing zeitgeist at an influential department. Lists of publications are presumably an invaluable resource for intellectual historians!)
On beyond paper: from books to bits
Until recently bibliographies had to be compiled and printed in physical dead-tree volumes. This limited not only how often the bibliographies could be updated, but also how the items contained within them were organised. Items would have to be placed in a definite sequence, perhaps according to some rigid taxonomy. At best dead-tree bibliographies may skew the selection, presentation and ordering of works according to one of many possible interpretations of a body of scholarship. At worst they may shoehorn individual works into an arbitrary scheme so they fit the expectations and contrivances of the bibliographer. For example, for the sake of taxonomical integrity Johann Georg Hamann is classified by Jules Michelet, a nineteenth century historian, as an example of Glaubensphilosophie, a term which became popular many decades after the former’s death and which Hamann and those who knew him almost certainly wouldn’t apply to his work!
In the last few decades we have moved beyond print bibliographies and card catalogues to more fine-grained and (sometimes) more sophisticated bit-based systems. These allow lists of publications to be sorted, searched and queried in all kinds of interesting ways, and to be annotated and updated on-the-fly. For example, websites like Library Thing and Amazon allow people to create arbitrary lists of books – as well as to rate and comment on books. Software packages and services like Mendeley and Zotero allow people to manage and share collections of links, documents and sources. We are seeing the emergence of new kinds of technologies that transform the way we work with lists. One thing that the web currently seems to be very good at is allowing people to create and curate various kinds of lists – from lists of links to lists of encyclopedia topics. Lists can easily be kept near-comprehensive (but – and this is a virtue – never quite complete), very up to date, and do not have to be shoehorned into any particular pre-determined structure, unlike their paper counterparts. Diderot would have been jealous!
A case study: the genealogy of stories
Recently I was talking with my dad about his new research centre, the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy. A little while ago I proposed that a useful output of the centre could be a large multilingual, collaboratively edited bibliography (or bibliographic database) of publications related to folk tales, fairy tales and fantasy. Naturally one that would make the likes of Herder, Brentano, Arnim, and the Grimms proud! This would include:
- primary sources for fairy tales in different countries (e.g. Giambattista Basile, the Brother’s Grimm, Charles Perrault, …)
- secondary commentaries (e.g. Vladimir Propp, Jack Zipes, …)
- new literary tales and new reworkings of old tales (e.g. Ludwig Tieck, E.T.A Hoffman, George MacDonald, Italo Calvino, …)
Ideally the database would be able to give answers to questions like:
- What has been published about Giambattista Basile in German in the last 20 years?
- Which Italian folktales and fairy tales have been translated into Norwegian?
- What was published about Charles Perrault in English between 1850 and 1900?
Among other things it could be useful as a scholarly tool to compare translations, reworking and editions of particular tales – as well as as the basis for serious source criticism and comparative scholarship, looking at the transmission and influence of different tales across different regions.
I’ve been looking around to see whether there’s anything which fits the bill, but have been unable to find anything that seems quite right (if you know of anything please let me know!). Meanwhile, I’ve put together a preliminary specification for an open source web service tentatively dubbed ‘Bibliographica’ to scratch the itch. So far I’ve used the Sussex Centre project and examples from my own research to illustrate the project, but the idea would be to create something generic which could be used in lots of different domains – not just for philosophy or folktales!
Bibliographica: what lovely features you have
A list of desirable features (in no particular order):
- Free, open source and easy for for anyone to set up their own branded instance of the service at their own domain name (e.g. biblio.york.ac.uk or books.example.com)
- Easy to import and export data in a variety of common formats (including from existing online sources of open bibliographic data such as the Open Library)
- Fully versioned so that all changes to the bibliography can be tracked and, if necessary, reversed
- Allows different read/edit permissions to be assigned to different users and groups (e.g. individual researchers, research groups, …)
- Allows users to easily create their own lists of publications (e.g. for a taught course, for an article, book or thesis, …)
- Allows users to easily create new ‘record’ for a publication
- Allows users to search, sort and query records by author, title, subject matter, language, country/region of origin, date of publication, date of subject matter, and so on
- Uses existing technologies such as OpenID
- Support for arbitrary, user-generated tags of authors and works
- Well documented API
- Allows users to see which works are in the public domain in their jurisdiction (using a series of public domain calculators)
- Allows users to find digital copies of works which have fallen into the public domain – as well as links to online journal archives, library catalogues and so on
This would be, to the greatest extent possible, based on and compatible with existing bibliographic data standards including MARC, FRBR and Dublin Core. Below are some rough ideas for fields that might be included. Any and all suggestions welcome in the comments below, or via email! This is intended to be a work in progress…
- First Name
- Last Name
- Date of Birth
- Date of Death
- Place of Birth
- Place of Death
- Area(s) lived in
- Country(/ies) associated with
- Which users/groups can edit (optional)
- Date of Publication
- Country/region of origin
- Country/region of subject matter
- Which users/groups can edit (optional)
- Author(s) it is about
- Subject matter (perhaps based on Library of Congress Subject Headings)
- Medium/type of work (book, article, audio recording, film, …)
- URL (if relevant)
- Works in list
- Comment/annotation associated with a given work in the list
- Which users/groups can edit (optional)
- User name
- Contact details
- Description (bio, links, …)
- Authors edited
- Works edited
- Lists edited