Notes from our Bibliographer

A Bibliographic Tool to Study and Combat Racism in our Profession

By Stephen Weldon, HSS Bibliographer

A few months ago I initiated a new project on Race and History of Science in a long overdue response to the crisis we face in society, both in America and throughout the globe, namely, our modern social structure within which racist practices have been embedded. In my initial statement on June 9, I indicated that the Isis Current Bibliography can respond in meaningful ways to this call for change. Scholarship must be founded, I claim, on the fundamental value of the equality of all human beings and cannot operate honestly unless its practitioners embrace that basic ideal.

I have set up a small advisory board, which I intend to expand over the upcoming months, to help me think through and implement actions that will ensure that the content and outreach of this tool can deal with structural racism in history of science scholarship. You can see the list of current board members at the main Race and Science page linked above.

As part of this effort, I have created a word cloud of relevant keywords (controlled vocabulary) used in the IsisCB related to race and racism in science, technology, and medicine. You can see this word cloud in full below.

The term selection is my own. I did not use any algorithm to find related terms, and I made the collection by doing several different searches through the database. I used my familiarity with the data and my own judgement about what terms seemed most relevant. The font sizes you see in the word cloud are not precisely proportional to the number of entries linked to each term because the counts ranged from two to nearly seven hundred, and doing a proportional count would have rendered some very important terms invisible. Instead, I adjusted the font to one of seven different sizes.

I have two reasons for creating this word cloud. First, visualizations such as this one can illuminate patterns in scholarship: how much and how little the topic of race is discussed in its various manifestations. Those looking to understand more about our field can glean some insights by simply looking at the keyword pages themselves.

Second, I am able to use this word cloud to look more closely at how terminology has changed over the decades in my work and in that of my predecessor. John Neu, for instance, was extremely constrained by the controlled vocabulary he was forced to work with. As a result, we find such oddities as the use of the term “African races” to mark biographical materials about people of color, such as articles and books about African American scientists. Terminological differences such as this make material in the pre-2000 bibliography harder to find when using more familiar and appropriate search phrases. By discovering usage differences like this, I can develop better ways to direct users with specific interests.

Along these lines, I have begun to develop subclassifications. You can see this classified list of terms on my blog if you go to the post. The list gives the full names of each keyword, a precise count of the citations that are tagged by that keyword (as of mid-July), and a hyperlink directly to the Explore record for each one. The list also contains categories of terms related to colonialism and traditional knowledge that are not on the word cloud.

A third use of this word cloud has been to highlight just where the strengths and weaknesses of the IsisCB are. This survey has helped me in thinking about how to increase the number of citations in this area. We are now adding material from publications that I’d not searched previously, such as several journals specifically related to Black studies and the history of African Americans and other people of color.

Finally, I see this project as an experimental one that helps me think about ways to create a more user friendly interface. To what extent will these word clouds and terminology lists make digging into the resources easier? As I build these visualizations, I am trying to test the waters for directions going forward, assessing both the strengths and limitations of them.

I would much appreciate any feedback you have on this project. Please drop me a line at and let me know if you would be interested in participating in some way.

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