Open Notes for Deep Maps

For the last couple of years, I have been working with my colleague John Perkins on building a database called Situating Chemistry. With this database we have been collecting information about the sites where chemistry was done in the 18th and 19th centuries, who was doing the chemistry, and what they were doing.

One of the primary visualizations of the database is a map with a pin on each of the sites in the database. When you click on a pin, you get some basic information about who owned the site, what street it was on (or town if we don’t know the street), the years of operation, and whether the site has been classified as industrial, academic, medical, courtly, mercantile, or one of several other options. Below is a screenshot showing the 650 or so sites that we have catalogued in Paris, overlaid onto a map of the city from 1790. As you zoom in on the city, the numbered pins break down until you can see each individual sites location.

A screen shot of the world map in the Situating Chemistry database featuring data about 18th century Paris

If you want to see more information you can click view and see an extended set of information about the given site. Here’s the record for the site highlighted in the map above: Issy Farjas 1811 SIT. From there you could find links for more information about the sites owner, Jean Louis Farjas, or links to other sites that produced sulphuric acid, or more information about the primary sources (Oudiette 1817) for the information.

Extending the Database

We are proud of the data we have collected in the database, but we think we can collect much, much more. The most important feature of Situating Chemistry is that it is an Open Notes System. This means that anyone can register for the site and enter data or analyze the data that is already in the system.

It’s unlikely that most people will want to spend time entering data on the history of chemistry. However, our hope is that historians of chemistry and historians of science more broadly will take us up on the offer. So far we have more than 30 people registered to the site, and several different users have already entered more than a hundred records.

The power of the database comes in the fact that you can interlink records to show the relationships between places, people, and events. So, if I were studying Guillaume Francois Rouelle (1703-1770), I could go to his record and find links for many of his students, his family, the sites that he owned or operated, and the subjects that he studied. Rouelle’s site is incomplete though (no historical record could ever be complete) at least in that it does not include information on the many courses that he taught at the Jardin du Roi. Thus I could improve the database by adding in new records for Rouelle’s courses, and then link those records to his personal record.

A colleague could then come along, get a decent sense of Rouelle’s activity and add in their own research on Rouelle’s colleage PJ Macquer. Cumulatively, over time we would hope to flesh out the research networks of chemistry, not only in France but throughout the world.

Situating Chemistry World Map

As you can see from the expanded map, most of our information currently covers France, Germany, and England though we do have pins in Indonesia, India, Russia, and elsewhere. We are in the process of uploading a sizable chunk of data on 19th century Britain, but we need help from people who study other regions and other eras.

The Challenge & Promise of Open Notes

There are at least a couple of challenges in convincing people to spend time entering data. The primary challenge seems to be that people would rather spend time reading and writing rather than doing data entry. I think we’re as unlikely to find historians who love data entry as we are to find unicorns. However, we hope that the ease of getting the pre-built map visualization and other forms of data visualization (timeline, graphs, etc.) will be enough to entice people to use the system.

The system is built both to display information, but also as a system to gather information. We hope that people will use the database as they go into archives or read or think through their historical case studies. As you are trying to figure out the familial relationship between Farjas and Pierre Louis Simon and his family, enter it into the system for note keeping and for genealogical visualization. As you come across a new factory, enter it into the system and then pull up similar factories for comparison.

I have on several occasions photographed and transcribed a manuscript for my research and later found it cited in the secondary literature. How much time would be saved if we could simply upload our photographs and notes a shared database. Situating Chemistry has this functionality in the documents records. Those manuscripts could then be linked to the various people they mention, the substances discussed, and the places in which they were written and read.

If you’re reading a great new article or monograph, check to see if the author’s other works would be of interest or if anyone has done comparative studies between this case study and your own research projects.

The deeper, philosophical objection that we face is the very idea of open notes. Historians and academics more broadly trade in research publications. Sharing notes prior to publication would seem to undermine our most cherished commodity. However, I would argue that entering the basic data about sites and people and sources will not lead someone to scoop you. You are simply contributing to a more specialized and in depth Wikipedia.There are also private notes fields in the database to gather more analytical thoughts that you do not want to share.

No one is going to stumble across the new record on an acid works in Rouen that you entered or even the set of chemical works that you’ve been studying and be able to write the article or book that you are working on faster than you. Instead, we trust that people will be able to use the system to communicate about their ongoing projects, develop collaborative and comparative projects, and find information that is more reliable and better contextually situated than they would find in the existing encyclopedias or through hours of reading. We are excited about the possibility of accelerating research by interrelating an entire sub-disciplinary communities notes, accumulated over years of reading and archival visits, and we hope you will join us.

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