Bret Victor’s Bookshelf

A couple of posts ago, I wrote a somewhat unorthodox introduction to the work of Bret Victor. In it, I brought the reader’s attention to a recent article from The Atlantic called The Scientific Paper is Obsolete.


I know that this article had already made the rounds among some library people because I saw the piece being recommended and retweeted online. Chris Bourg, Director of Libraries at MIT chose not to read this article.

Not to be presumptuous, but I like to think that I understand her reasons and her reaction. I say this because whenever I read a list – especially a list that promises some form of universal canon (oh, say for a manual for civilization) and there are few to no women or non-white people (or non-white women), more often than not that list registers to me as deficient.

You cannot be well-read until you read the work of women.

So what are we to make of the gender balance of the works on Bret Victor’s esteemed bookshelf?

Are Bret’s reading choices any of our business? Maybe not.

Although…. they might be if they are the same books that are being used to form the canon of DynamicLand.


Enough with my moral reproach, scolding and lecturing! Let me tell you about DynamicLand! Because gender representation of its bookshelf notwithstanding, I think it’s an absolutely remarkable endeavour.

Seriously, go to the Dynamicland website, take it in, and consider it. Scroll through the videos on their twitter stream. And then, when you can, go deeper and watch Bret Victor’s videos, The Humane Representation of Thought and Seeing Spaces.

Speaking of seeing spaces

If I could offer one additional book for the shelves of Bret Victor and Dynamicland, it would be The science studies reader only because I know it contains Donna Haraway’s Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.

I have found the idea of situated knowledge very useful as both a feminist and someone who has a degree in science . This work has helped me reconcile these two selves. I also have found the concept useful in some of my own thinking in librarianship (see post: The Observer or Seeing What You Mean)

I like this definition of Situated Knowledge from The Oxford Dictionary of Human Geography:

The idea that all forms of knowledge reflect the particular conditions in which they are produced, and at some level reflect the social identities and social locations of knowledge producers. The term was coined by historian of science Donna Haraway in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: the Reinvention of Nature (1991) to question what she regarded as two dangerous myths in Western societies. The first was that it is possible to be epistemologically objective, to somehow be a neutral mouthpiece for the world’s truths if one adopts the ‘right’ method of inquiry. The second myth was that science and scientists are uniquely and exclusively equipped to be objective. Haraway was not advocating relativism. Instead, she was calling for all knowledge producers to take full responsibility for their epistemic claims rather than pretending that ‘reality’ has definitively grounded these claims.

We can and should take full responsibility for what we see and to recognize that what we see is what we choose to see.

To not read the works of people who are unlike ourselves is a choice. We can do better. I know I can do better. I’ve made first steps, but I know I c=could do more. I am considering following the lead of Ed Yong who actively pursued a better gender balance in his reporting:

We can’t see if we don’t even try to look.