A month ago, we organised an exploratory workshop entitled ‘Unlocking the Archives for Scientists’ at the Royal Society. The aim was to discover the work of some of the scientists who use archival material for long trend studies, and to discuss how best to support them using digital formats, tools and platforms. The workshop brought together archivists, curators, historians of science and scientists from various disciplines.
The Royal Society archive was built on the founding Fellows’ desire to create a repository to preserve their discoveries, observations and theories for future generations of scientists. Many other collections across the UK are also custodians of papers, letters and specimens which record scientific knowledge over time. The development of such an archive pursues the Baconian ideal that science should be conducted by a virtual community, a commonwealth working across the globe, generation after generation.
Although this idea of scientific progress is verified every day, current scientists tend to consider they should only work with recent scholarly publications and datasets. This is because these sources aim to be verifiable, methodically sound and tend to be compatible with the analytical tools they use. As a result, there is a large gap between scientific archives and scientists. Today, the reality is that we rarely see scientists in our reading room despite the founders’ intentions.
During the workshop, which consisted of lightning presentations in the morning followed by discussions in the afternoon, we discussed extensively how best to support scientists who wish to work with historical records. We looked at the different digital tools that can bridge the gap between 17th to 19th century records and current scientific methods, and how to put in place future collaborations, with contributions helping to identify issues and common themes from across the disciplines.
What I found most valuable in our discussions was the range of solutions put forward to confront obstacles: suggestions were made on how scientists from a variety of backgrounds can be encouraged to engage with the collections, how machine-learning can assist automatic recognition of digitised texts, and how citizen science projects can open up the archives. One of the conclusions was that engagement with history of science and archival material should enter the scientific curriculum much earlier than currently happens.
Anne Barrett, Imperial College and Centre for Scientific Archives: ‘Keeping a foothold and making your mark – retaining your digital footprint for longevity and validating it’.
Giles Bergel, University of Oxford: ‘Seebibyte project – studying scientific illustrations with computer vision’.
Mark Carine, Natural History Museum: ‘Fixing names and typification, documenting change’.
Victoria Cranna, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: ‘The use of original patient data in the fight against the 2014 Ebola outbreak’.
Andrea Deneau and Isabelle Charmantier, Linnean Society of London: ‘The challenges of digitising historical scientific collections’.
Sietske Fransen, University of Cambridge: ‘How to make an archive of 17th-century scientific images attractive and useful?’
David J. Goyder, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: ‘Thomas Baines’s field sketches reveal the correct collection dates and localities of specimens preserved in Kew’s Herbarium ‘.
Laura Green, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: ‘Revealing the treasures of Kew’s Herbarium to a digital world’.
Ed Hawkins, University of Reading: ‘ WeatherRescue.org: using citizen scientists to rescue millions of lost weather observations’.
Peter Murray-Rust, University of Cambridge: ‘Machine-assisted human-extraction of data in the scientific archive’.
David Pyle, University of Oxford: ‘Reconstructing historical eruptions’.
Anna Marie Roos, University of Lincoln: ‘The elephant in the room: historians and scientists working together’.
Liz Smith and Francis Neary, University of Cambridge: ‘The importance of historical context in interpreting the data of Charles Darwin’s correspondence’.
Beata Bradford, Archive collections manager, Science Museum.
Hans Brandhorst, Arkyves, Iconclass, Erasmus University Rotterdam.
Huw Jones, Head of Digital Library Unit, Cambridge University Library.
Lee MacDonald, Research Facilitator, Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.
Tom Scott, Head of Digital Engagement, Wellcome Trust.
The workshop was a great opportunity for researchers and archivists to meet and discuss potential collaborations. At the Royal Society, we are targeting specifically our large range of meteorological archives as a test for this kind of project.
The next step for the working group would be to formulate concrete recommendations to boost engagement by scientists, and we hope therefore to reconvene a similar workshop with this aim.
For anyone interested in the presentations and discussion, many of the speakers have made their presentations available, so please contact me with any specific requests.