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Libraries & Culture 37.2 (2002) 183-186

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Book Review

Scientific Communication in History

Scientific Communication in History. By Bryan C. Vickery. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2000. xxii, 255 pp. $55.00. ISBN 0-8108-3598-3.

This modest little volume offers the reader a cohesive, beautifully crafted account of scientific communication from ancient Mesopotamia's clay tablets to the instantaneous electronic communication of the twentieth century. The author's engaging style and meticulous research combine in a seamless narrative to sweep the reader along through the centuries in a real page-turner.

Notable professor, international consultant, and author, Brian Vickery began his career as a chemist, working in a chemical munitions factory during World War II. He became interested in classification, information retrieval, and scientific information processing and management and in 1958 published his first book, Classification and Indexing in Science. A pioneer in the study of scientific information systems and in the application of new information technologies, he is eminently qualified to portray the grand vista of scientific communication through the centuries. Arranged chronologically, sections on early civilizations, Classical culture, the medieval period, the scientific revolution (1450-1700), and the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries portray the progress, challenges, and significant developments in the field. Perhaps most fascinating are the individual players--the explorers, scientists, librarians, inventors, teachers, politicians, publishers, bibliographers, scholars, and engineers who come to life in these pages.

Drawing on some 236 journal articles, conference proceedings, monographs, letters, government publications, and reports, Vickery has an enviable ability to extract, distill, and weave the essence of his sources into his narrative. Ranging from Gibbon to the last decade of the twentieth century, his bibliography includes all of the well-known names in the field--Boorstin, de Solla Price, Sarton, Singer, Bush, Garvey, Bernal--as well as many lesser-known players, all of whom contributed to the centuries-long tale of scientific communication.

Throughout the book, fascinating details lend a sense of reality to events in the distant past. For example, in the fifth century B.C. Plato established his school in a specific, physical location, in contrast to the practice of itinerant teachers such as Socrates. He happened to select a site on land owned by one Akademos, and the name became attached to the school, the first of many scientific academies. Centuries later, in 1666, the great fire of London destroyed the outstanding library of the Royal College of Physicians, which had been augmented over the years by donations from many famous scientists; gone were the extensive collections in medicine, geometry, geography, cosmography, astronomy, physics, and zoology except for 140 books. Imagine the consternation of the clientele! [End Page 183]

Libraries and the book trade of the ancient world come alive, a world of librarians, translations (Arabic and Greek into Hebrew and Latin), encyclopedists, whose systematically arranged works provided collections of opinions from the best-known authorities, and the complex production of manuscripts. This process required the services of the stationarii who were attached to the medieval university. These individuals combined the functions of printer, publisher, bookseller, circulating librarian, and stationer, and they employed scriveners to prepare copies of manuscripts.

The remarkable scientific revolution of the Renaissance went far beyond the earlier goals of simply recording and compiling existing knowledge. The Renaissance scientist "burst out of all such scholastic systems. His mind ran in every direction, ferreting out new facts of nature, experimenting, devising new theories, throwing up a chaotic mass of new knowledge that did not fit into any existing system. Leonardo covered thousands of pages with notes of his new observations and ideas. Francis Bacon listed hundreds of projected new 'histories' (68)."

Italy was the home of the first scientific academies. In the early seventeenth century the Accademia dei Lincei was founded in Rome by the duke Federico Cesi, "himself a keen experimenter, collector of natural curiosities, beekeeper and botanist." The academy was a center for research, and its experiments were recorded in the Gesta Lynceorum, the first publication of a learned society. In England, Samuel Hartlib and his group began to discuss and publicize a proposal for an...


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