Humanities as the Hub, Mapping Knowledge
The research done by mathematicians in information-library science has a certain appeal to me. It’s like some sort of H.R. Giger chimera a combination of technology and organic structure. To name a few of these mathematician/librarian/information researchers we have:
- Claude Shannon, Ma Bell researcher, father of information theory, mathematician
- S.R. Ranganathan, librarian, father of library science in India, mathematician
- Gottfried Leibniz, (a new one for me) founder of library science, originator of publisher’s abstracts for libraries, mathematician
- Herbert Van de Sompel, assisted in creating OAI, developing SFX, OpenURL syntax, mathematcian
The application of the mathematical approach to the humanities seems to be a fertile area for ideas and developments. This was uncanny to me,
until I read a recent article co-authored by Herbert Van de Sompel, and began this line of thinking.
The article has a wonderfully explicit name, Clickstream Data Yields High-Resolution Maps of Science, and is equally lucid in describing a fascinating visualization of the connections of knowledge (based on clickstreams through various journals and number/thesaurus crunching.) The image here is taken from that article and shows a colored dot for each intellectual discipline represented in the study and a line connecting ones that had a high probability of user crossover. In other words, disciplines are connected if many of the users in the study were looking at articles in both.
One really interesting thing about this map, is that yellow-white blob north-west of the middle of the chart is the location of many of the humanities disciplines. The area is highly connected, internally as well as externally, and if one believes the methodology of the study, this is not an artifact of the visualization. That is, the humanities disciplines are highly connected to each other and to the other disciplines. The article reads,
To provide a visual frame of reference, we summarize the overall visual appearance of the map of science in Fig. 5 in terms of a wheel metaphor. The wheel’s hub consists of a large inner cluster of tightly connected social sciences and humanities journals (white, yellow and gray).
So we have a hub, or core (or rhizome if you are into A Thousand Plateaus) of the humanities and social sciences connecting the natural and applied sciences. These core disciplines seem to be characterized by connections and interdisciplinary, both in their rhetoric, and also through this particular study.
Mathematicians are often concerned with the abstract or the ideal of something. Their work is often finding patterns and building systems to connect already established systems. Mathematically inclined people who move towards this hub, in the form of information/library science, seem to retain the knowledge-as-erector-set-between-disciplines ideal. Seeing the connections, they gravitate towards humanism and abstract connections between disciplines.
In the end, we get cybernetic chimeras which seem so dirty and perverse, but are somehow beautiful because they get us closer to understanding our weird web of knowledge.