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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2001

Book Reviews

Readers' Guide to the History of Science

David Farrell
The Bancroft Library
University of California, Berkeley

Hessenbruch, Arne, editor. Reader's Guide to the History of Science. London : Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000. 934 pp. ISBN 1-884964-29-X. $135.00 (hardcover).
One-volume "reader's guides" are a mixed bag. The subject may be too broad in scope to be covered in a single, reasonably portable book, or it may be too narrowly defined to provide a comprehensive overview. The selection of subjects and authors may reflect too closely the idiosyncrasies of the editor (or his time and place), and the articles may be uneven in style and content. Yet, when done well (as the present volume is), the "reader's guide" fits a specific and necessary niche and can be a reader's (and librarian's) best friend. Novice and expert scholar alike need succinct, readable overviews of topics they may wish to explore for a term paper or to gather information in a area of interest ancillary to their specialties. The inclusion of a well-selected bibliography offers ready access to key texts and authorities in the field. In short, the best of the genre is much like having a friendly, knowledgeable information specialist at your elbow. The Reader's Guide covers the subject fairly well in some 500 brief, topical essays (including, as is common, the history of technology and medicine). The author, who is Research Fellow at MIT's Dibner Institute, states his goal is to provide an introduction to the secondary literature for students at the graduate and undergraduate level, as well as teachers at all levels. He aptly states his hope that the volume will provide "a snapshot of the history of science at the beginning of the 21st century." In light of the great advances in science and technology over the past 50 years, and their impact on a broad range of social, legal, economic, and public policy issues, this is a worthy goal unto itself.

The 500 signed articles (some translated) by 280 contributors are arranged in alphabetical order. Topics include corporate names (e.g., Accademia dei Lincei, CERN), personal names (e.g, Archimedes, Alan Turing), and topics (e.g., Respiration, Third Reich and Science). Each article includes a short bibliography and, where appropriate, cross references. Additional helpful points of access are the Alphabetical List of Entries, the Thematic List, the Booklist Index, and the General Index.

The Reader's Guide is well organized, written in a clear and authoritative style, informative, and fairly comprehensive, and its information is presented in a very accessible format with helpful indexes. The selection of topics and scope of some articles are problematic for this reader. Despite the author's residence on this side of the Atlantic (and the eminent achievements of American scientists, engineers, and historians), the Reader's Guide has a strong bias toward European (and British in particular) science and history. It is curious, for example, that the article on the Human Genome Project makes no mention of the impact on the project's timeline and results of latecomer Craig Ventner and Celera Genomics. Science museums and the computer industry, likewise, have gaps that are hard to understand. There is an article on the Smithsonian Institution, but why not the Deutsches Museum or the Victoria and Albert Museum? The coverage of national science is likewise spotty and inexplicable. Why are there articles titled "Botany: Britain," or "Scientific Instruments: France," "Darwinism in Germany," and "British Association for the Advancement of Science" but little or no coverage of the topics in other countries ?

The volume's most significant shortcoming in this reader's view is its general lack of reference to digital technologies, computer science, computers in society, the computer industry, the personal computer, or the World Wide Web. It appears that no more than six of the 500 essays have computer-related titles. It's difficult to think of a more important technological development at the turn of the millennium; why is it largely avoided? And, while the editor clearly states his intention of restricting sources to "secondary literature," the lack of citations in the articles and bibliographies to web-based resources, and, regrettably the absence of a computer-based version of the book are also critical. In fact, the latter may be the Reader's Guide's greatest shortcoming, in light of its general excellence and the value of maintaining this "database" current and widely searchable and accessible. These drawbacks, however, are outweighed by the volume's strengths, and one hopes the publishers will launch it on the internet in the future.

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