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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 076-154A(WS)-E
Division Number: V.
Professional Group: Rare Books and Manuscripts
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 154A
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Cataloguing of Manuscripts & Special Collections : Data Management & Data Input Standards
The Case of History of Science and Technology

Marco Beretta
Maison d'Italie
Cité Universitaire,
Paris, France


Andrea Scotti

Instituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza
Firenze, Italy



The following presentation aims at demonstrating the urgency for a commonly accepted definition of a standard input data model for the classification of manuscript sources and special collections. It will also explain the need of distributing an exchange format model which should differ from that available in different institutions and libraries which, in our view, manages data concerning this kind of sources without fully exploiting the potential of database technology. The state of art of databases administrating the information concerning the consistency, the type, the state of conservation, the degree of analysis etc. of manuscript and special collections can not in fact be compared with that concerning on-line catalogues of printed books. If for on-line catalogues it has been developed and, more or less, accepted a universal exchange format (such as UNIMARC, MARC etc.), and it has been implemented widely a uniform tag criteria, for manuscripts, instruments and other different archival material such agreement is far from reach and, so far, it no attempts has been made to bring this kind of sources into the field of Library Data Management. In contrast to this situation there is a widespread need among users to have a readily accessible inventory of such treasures (most often unique items).

The experience gained though the realisation of three different projects (see ahead examples from the BNCF General Scientific Mss Catalogue or the General Catalogue of Lavoiser Papers at the Archives de l'Académie de Sciences, Paris or the Waller Collection General Catalogue, Uppsala University Library- under construction.) has brought us to developed a database for the classification of a wide range of non printed sources in the history of science and technology. In the last three years, through extensive tests on different European collections, such application of a basic data input model brought us to the following assessments:

  1. libraries rarely use systematic digital classification for their manuscript collections; when they do so, the tools made available are supported by so complicated data input models that they prove to be modelled upon the traditional criteria used to print a catalogue of manuscripts without exploiting, with few exceptions, the efficiency and cost effective structure offered by a well designed database;

  2. in the field of archivists and specialists of archival resources it has been registered a general diffidence for database and digital classification; this diffidence is rooted in the idea that such tools would not match the bibliographic and paleographic standards required by the official and national institutions which are currently engaged throughout Europe to produce digital inventories and catalogues of manuscripts (ICCU in Italy DFG in Germany, ITHRS in France etc).

  3. among the few institutions which support the development of manuscript dbase and accordingly attempt to bring onto the world net their collections, it often happens that a not exchangeable format is used.

The experience gained within the field of history of science and technology might be extended to a wider range of documents and objects located in libraries, archives and museums. For example, a successful attempt of building an exchange format for the cataloguing of scientific instruments has been developed by Institute & Museum for the History of Science (Florence). This project was promoted on the basis of EC co-operation and funding agreements between with History of Science Museum of Oxford, the Boerhaave Museum of Leiden and the British Museum (London). As a consequence of this agreement, the Epact project, an exchange format program, the so-called SIC (Scientific Instrument Catalogue) is now used as standard input format for the description and classification of laboratory and scientific instruments. It is to be hoped that a similar agreement could be reached also for codices and special collections cataloguing and our presentation aims at contributing to clarify the problem in order to find a common exchange format and develop our knowledge on the manuscripts treasure of the European and world wide libraries.

The input phase

The input phase is the most important part of any cataloguing project. The data should be input in such a way that any queries the user submits might be satisfied by the search engine. In order to cover almost all plausible queries, the data should be structured into different datatype groups (archives). The smaller these archives are the higher is the chance that the dbase matches will fulfil the research target of the user. Therefore, as shown in the following graphic, the items should be subdivided as follows:

The relation that will be created by structuring the data will provide the possibility to retrieve automatically the item required and its links with the bibliographic information and the image/s of the item. As for example in the following graphic:

S= Shelfmark to which are related the parts:
A= Author
T= Text Y= Typology of the item (ms., instrument etc.)
I= Image of the item (which can be also more than one)

The basic relation system might be developed and creates relation/s within parts of one item (as shown in the following graphic) or within parts of different items. In this way the structure of the dbase will have the following groups (upper definition of an item) and elements (lower or specific attributes of an item, i.e. part of text, illustration, drawing etc.):

Group 1:

Group 2a:
T1=part-1 of T
-1= part of I

Q= quality of the part
R= type of relation (relation part)
I-2= part of I

In Group 1 the relation text-image is basic (as shown in the previous graphic) but the relation of this group to Groups 2a and 2b builds the indirection relation level. The result will be that the relation will outline some differences or similarities within the iconography of the two illustrations of the same leaf of the manuscript. This relation will be the filter for further relations with other similar elements of other items. At the query:

(such expression is arbitrary and not SQL)
select from Dbase (n-||| )
find *T=( n|||)
n(SH) & n(T) per nT(T-1) & nT(T-2)
where nT of (T-1 & T-2) = T1+xyz & T2+xyz

ìÇ=n(SH+ nT & nT(T1,2 xyz)+{(I1[+xyz], 1,2)&(I2[+xyz], 1,2)}Èþýhtml output


This way of structuring the data will provide the user with the possibility of navigating throughout all the different archives without having the need to perform on her/his home terminal complex queries or to compile difficult programming statement such as the SQL query command. The navigation will obviously depend upon what kind of questions the user will submit. The following graphic gives schematically the ways through which the engine will go to retrieve the information and its related elements.

The last two images show how the data will be given to a browser connected with the net. Starting from the textual information is then possible to retrieve the details of a text of interest (sample from the National Central Library Gen. Catalogue of Scientific Mss.)

Another project in which we have used the model described above is the General Catalogue of the Lavoisier Papers. In this case the database for manuscripts classification aims at the reconstruction of a relatively homogenous scientific collection.

The importance of database for the history of science is yet to be assessed however, the variety of the sources historians have to deal with when working with the reconstruction of the scientific endeavor of the past already hint to some fruitful applications.

Unlike other forms of history, history of science not only deals with texts and manuscripts but also with instruments and artifacts which were used in a dynamic way in order to perform experiments. Up to the first half of the 19th century scientific laboratories were kept together with libraries and archival resources.

Since the situation has changed radically in this century, historians have been forced by external circumstances to study the conceptual background of science and its instruments separately, so much so that from this separation stemmed two separate society, the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science and the Scientific Instrument Society. It will lead us too far to examine the negative effects of this separation, but it is worth noting that in most cases instruments and manuscripts have been physically separated and that nowadays it is quite difficult to find a science museum which keeps the manuscript records related to its holdings, or reciprocally an archive or library which records in any ways the instruments which are described in the manuscripts they hold.

The application of integrated databases to a rich variety of items, such as the case for history of science and technology, offers us a possibility to overcome these difficulties and to explore new ways of historical survey.

This is the case of the manuscripts and instruments of the French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, born 1743, generally considered as the founder of modern chemistry. The largest collection of Lavoisier's manuscripts is kept at the Archives de l'Académie des Sciences in Paris and it lists over 6000 manuscripts. Of this extensive archival resource only a part, less than half, have been known to historians. A card inventory description, covering two third of the collection was made in 1888-1889 by the director of Archives Ernest Mandrion. Mandrion did not make any attempt of classification of the manuscripts but he inventoried them as he found them physically. This approach meant that many manuscripts of the same period and on the same subject which, for some reasons had been misplaced after they were donated to the Archives, were still kept separate. Accordingly, we found fragments of the same travel diary scattered throughout the collection, different versions of the same scientific memoir kept separate etc. etc. Since the time of Mandrion no other attempts have been made to describe the collection in an exhaustive way. Given the importance of Lavoisier in the history of science a project was successfully submitted one year ago for cataloging in a digital form of the whole collection, including the part which has never been inventoried before. The preliminary results is an inventory, on digital format, which we are going soon to present.

Since many of Lavoisier's manuscripts are descriptions of instruments and detailed evaluations of their performance we have thought it necessary to develop interface for the acquisition and remote manipulation of images. The instruments in fact were often drawn and re-drawn by Lavoisier himself, being this a crucial aspect of his scientific endeavor.
Moreover, at the Musée National des Arts et Métiers in Paris there is a rich collection of Lavoisier's instruments, providing us with a relatively accurate idea of his laboratory. The 450 instruments have been largely ignored by historians of science, but also historians of instruments had some difficulties to deal with them as they did not provide immediate clues to how they were supposed to work. Thus, even if located at few kilometers from each other, the separation between instruments and manuscripts has made it impossible to several generations of historians to link them in their original setting and to understand their function and historical meaning.

The database we have designed allow us to surmount these obstacles and to create the most conductive conditions to work in a virtual environment where the archival, library and instrumental resources are traced back to their original unity.

The 43 boxes of Lavoisier's manuscripts kept at the Archives of the Académie de sciences have been classified by using the following input phase mask:

The completion of this database (expected in June end 1998) will lead us to explore more links to other database on Lavoisier. The first and most obvious one is the digital acquisition of all the images of the manuscripts. The second, which will be carried out in 1999, is the complete scanning of Lavoisier's Oeuvres. At the end of this complementary process the user will have access to both the original manuscript and its transcription. Even more important will be to create a link between the manuscript, their images, their transcriptions and the instruments they refers to. While the database already offers the possibility for creating such a link, the project of digital acquisition of Lavoisier's instruments at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers and a development of the whole Lavoisier project is still under negotiation between the involved institutions.

Whatever the development of this particular project will be, we are already in the position to say that thanks to integrated database technology: the hermeneutic possibility are enormously extended; the inventory and classification of a variety of items are easily manageable within one working unit; and that this interactive and interdisciplinary environment reduces the existing gap between users, historians, librarians, archivists and curators.