RE: Science/technology archives discussion
This is a late answer to Helen's comment on the general topic " how to
document science and technology" (I would like to apologize for my bad
english, wich, I hope, will be understandable anyway).
First of all, I would like to remind some practical informations (...a
certain taste for bibliography...): this topic has been defined as a
topic of interest for various archivist since a long time. The first
seminar of the ICA / SUV Section
(http://www.usyd.edu.au/su/archives/ica_suv/) focused on it: see Janus,
1995, vol. 2., including a large bibliography, where particularly Helen
gave a paper linked with this topic. It was also treated by other
seminars, (Liège, 1996,
Paris /1997, http://www.cnrs.fr/Archives/)
Particularly, some work and papers has been produced in Europe, even if
this approach is not today recognized as important in our countries. For
example, the CASE project gives a list of archivist concerned by this
field and also a basic bibliography.
Part of the last ASAP conference was also dedicated to
See also what is done at the CNRS (http://www.cnrs.fr/Archives).
Going further into the discussion, I agree with Helen's point of view in
1° it 's particularly true that the main question - "what are we going
to document ?" -is often neglected: historians of science continue
usually to consider the scientific activity as a whole, without
considering all the differences between the workprocesses and
consequently, the records produced by the scientists themselves. Because
of extraneous reasons, a part of a very rich work made by for
example Bruno LATOUR, Science in action : how to follow scientists and
engineers through society, 1st ed., Open University Press, 1987, has
been completely forgotten (see the Sokal affair and its consequences),
even if it would be really interesting for any historian of science.
This more than a ten year old perspective appears often as a new one! In
the same way, see J.LAW, A sociology of monsters, London, 1991.
2° This question of "work process" is, in my point of view, the
essential that is to be treated.
For example, considering the institutionnal records, it is usually
considered that they are more or less well preserved, because of the
traditional historical practice on one hand, on the institutional
archival philosophy or methodology on the other hand. But, as Helen
underlined, a large part of the actual scientific developpment, that is
projects including different teams and in most cases linking private
cies and official institutions, is never describe as it is.
Considering another example, the "internal" records, we may say that in
most cases the real work of "collecting" records into the labs is
It show us clearly that each activity must be described and studied in
his particular context, without applying too general schemas.
Even if some archival centers (AIP, http://www.aip.org/ or ASAP -
http://www.asap.unimelb.edu.au/) or historical centers (Institute and
Museum of History of Science / Florence - http://www.imss.fi.it/) or the
CRHST - La Villette ) focused on the question of workprocess, a
collaborate effort should be done to share the archival and the
historical approach. This could help to encounter our particular needs
3° Consequently, the question underlined by Helen lead us to another one
: asking what is well documented or not lead to the question "why" .
Isn't it a good way towards a deepper query on our "philosophical"
Unité "Histoire des sciences et des idées" - Département des Archives
Université libre de Bruxelles
5O, av. F.D. Roosevelt - B-1050 Bruxelles
tél.: 32. (0)2.650.35.68 - fax: 32.(0)2.650.53.67 -
>De : Helen Samuels[SMTP:hwsamuel@MIT.EDU]
>Date : jeudi 9 juillet 1998 20:57
>A : Tim Sherratt
>Cc : firstname.lastname@example.org; Leonard DeGraaf
>Objet : Re: Science/technology archives discussion
>I liked the question you posed to the list from Leonard DeGraaf, and though
>I know you would like to hear from the historians in the group, if you will
>forgive this archivist, I would like to add an element to the question.
>The question posed to Leonard DeGraaf was about the under documented areas
>of science and technology. The question he asked the group to comment on,
>however, was the useful records and archival materials that they have used.
> I would encourage Dr. DeGraaf to focus on the first question: As we
>consider science and technology what areas are poorly documented. What
>would you the historians like to know, want to study? Recent work by
>archivists has demonstrated the value of thinking FIRST about WHAT we are
>trying to document and then determining HOW to gather or create the
>documentation that is required. If we don't know WHAT we are trying to
>document, we can't evaluate how well those documents (lab notebooks,
>databases, correspondence, oral histories) actually provide evidence about
>what we want to know.
>A discussion of under documented areas, then might focus on some of the
>For instance, research in academic settings tends to be better documented,
>both because of the tradition of publication by academics and also because
>there are academic archives collecting the papers of academic scientists
>and engineers. But what about research in the corporate and government
>sectors, or even the independent researcher? What do we want to know about
>At another level we can say that archivists have an understanding of how to
>document the work of individual scientists. But that is not how science
>and engineering is conducted these days. Rather research is conducted by
>large teams, often interdisciplinary, and often international. What do we
>want to know about this type of research? The Center for History of
>Physics at the American Institute of Physics had done some very important
>work on just this question.
>I hope that these suggestions will generate some discussion on under
>>I thought those of you who weren't subscribed to the H-SCI-MED-TECH list
>>might be interested in following this discussion thread.
>>>Date: Tue, 7 Jul 1998 16:05:06 -0400
>>>From: Leonard DeGraaf <Leonard_DeGraaf@NPS.GOV>
>>> This list has been quiet, so I would like to stir up some discussion
>>> with a few questions. The Society of American Archivists has asked me
>>> to participate in a session at their next meeting dealing with
>>> underdocumented areas in the history of science and technology. The
>>> session is an opportunity for archivists to hear researchers talk
>>> about the kinds of records or archival materials they can't find or
>>> wish there were more of, or have found valuable in their field.
>>> I would like to throw this question open to the list. Any thoughts or
>>> comments? I would also welcome any anecdotes about significant
>>> documents or records that have been lost (damaged, stolen,
>>> deaccessioned, etc.) in the past few years. Also, does anyone know if
>>> SHOT has dealt with these questions before and if so, what were the
>>> Leonard DeGraaf
>>> National Park Service
>>> Edison National Historic Site
>>>Date: Wed, 8 Jul 1998 09:50:53 -0400
>>>Years ago I wrote an article, "A Case Study in Frustration: Archives, the
>>>History of Technology, and Restoration of Yukon Riverboats," for the
>>>Canadian journal Archivaria, Vol. 25 (Winter 1987-88), pp. 51-72. One of
>>>the reasons I wrote the article was to try to foster some discussion and
>>>awareness amongst archivists concerning the needs of historians of
>>>technology. It did not surprise me that subsequent to the article there
>>>was a deafening silence concerning this subject. The reason for this is
>>>not very hard to find. There are simply too many demands for the limited
>>>resources available to archivists for them to focus in on what in their
>>>world is a minor field. The pressure from genealogists, all levels of
>>>government and so forth is much greater than what the few historians of
>>>technology can bring. This does not mean that we, as historians of
>>>technology with our own special requirements, should stop demanding that
>>>our needs should be met. I have found that this has been more effective
>>>on a personal level talking with individual archivists who have some
>>>interest in this field than trying to convince the profession as a whole.
>>>My purpose has always been to find some home for a record group that I
>>>thought was worth preserving and then having some input as to what parts of
>>>that record group should be preserved. Perhaps the time has come again to
>>>address this issue to a larger audience. It certainly cannot hurt.
>>>Arnold E. Roos
>>>Date: Wed, 8 Jul 1998 09:02:51 -0600
>>>From: Huey Gardner <HLG@JAZZ.UCC.UNO.EDU>
>>>I'll make two quick comments about science/technology archives.
>>>First, the University of New Orleans Library "rescued" boxes of old
>>>blue prints found in an old warehouse which was once used by
>>>Higgins Industries. The structure was due to be torn down.
>>>The blue prints are plans and modifications for WWII landing craft
>>>built by Higgins. When last I tried to use them, I was told that
>>>they (the library) was waiting for someone to go through them
>>>and decide what to keep. I was afraid that whomever did that
>>>may not recognize what they had.
>>>Second, I've spent a lot of time sifting through the archives of
>>>the Louisiana State Supreme Court. In many of the cases involving
>>>machines, structures, etc., the drawings and plans that should be
>>>a part of the case file is missing. I found only one - a map.
>>>I know they were submitted because they're refered to in the record,
>>>but someone along the way decided to discard them so all that is
>>>left is the written record.
>>>Just my two-cents.
>>>Date: Wed, 8 Jul 1998 10:05:18 +0000
>>>A couple of issues:
>>>1. There is an urgent need for the establishment of a center for
>>>history of biomedical sciences that could perform the functions
>>>currently handled by the AIP Center for History Physics and other
>>>centers. I've had some discussions with people at NIH about this; it
>>>appears that, for example, there is no place at NIH to preserve the
>>>papers of world-famous scientists who retire from NIH, and no system
>>>for informing them about other options or even encouraging them to
>>>save their papers. At present these papers just get thrown out, or
>>>left in a hallway or someone's garage. The National Library of
>>>Medicine has an excellent historical section but its archival
>>>holdings focus on 19th-center physicians and the results of a few
>>>interview projects; it appears that the NIH administration is not
>>>interested in funding an archive that would preserve papers of
>>>contemporary scientists. Apparently none of the professional
>>>societies has taken any real responsibility for this function (an
>>>exception is the Microbiology Society which has an archive at U of
>>>Maryland Baltimore County).
>>>2. A different kind of issue is the difficulty a researcher
>>>encounters in finding out all the places where letters of a
>>>particular scientist are held. You have to travel to all the
>>>archives that you think might have such letters. Published finding
>>>aids and indexes generally don't give enough information, especially
>>>if the collection has only one or two letters from a particular
>>>scientist. Most professional archivists tell me that their POLICY
>>>is NOT to do the "item-level cataloging" that would produce even a
>>>simple name index of all the correspondents in a collection. The
>>>reason is (a) in order to do that you have to establish "name
>>>authority" -- you must be sure of the identity of the correspondents.
>>> For example if a letter is signed "E. B. Wilson" that could be the
>>>physical chemist Edgar Bright Wilson, the statistician Edwin Bidwell
>>>Wilson or the biologist Edmund Beecher Wilson. It takes time and
>>>expertise to do this. (b) Because archives, like all institutions of
>>>this kind, are chronically underfunded, they don't have the resources
>>>to compile such an index, so in a typical "finding aid" they just
>>>tell you the "major" correspondents.
>>>As a user of archives, I disagree with the policy; I would rather
>>>have a name index even though it may be inaccurate or ambiguous
>>>because of the E.B.Wilson problem; as a researcher, it's up to me to
>>>establish the identity of the author of a letter, not to rely on an
>>>archivist to do so. I would like to see more indexes of the kind
>>>compiled (with great effort and aggravation) by Bruce Wheaton and
>>>Robin Rider, for the letters of 20th century physicists; see my
>>>review in Isis 83 (1994) 671-72. I would also support applications
>>>to foundations to fund the preparation of such indexes.
>>>University of Maryland
>>>Date: Wed, 08 Jul 1998 11:59:50 -0400
>>>From: Andrew Butrica <email@example.com>
>>>> I would also welcome any anecdotes about significant
>>>> documents or records that have been lost (damaged, stolen,
>>>> deaccessioned, etc.) in the past few years. Also, does anyone know
>>>> SHOT has dealt with these questions before and if so, what were the
>>>We did a SHOT session last year in Pasadena on the problems of doing
>>>history of the present/recent past and each presenter touched on this and
>>>related issues. It was a very successful session.
>>>As for documents researchers would like to get their hands on... How about
>>>corporate records? These are about the most elusive out there.
>>>Andrew J. Butrica
>>>X-33 History Project
>>>Washington, DC 20546
>>>Voice: (202) 358-4593 Fax: (202) 358-2866
>>>X-33 History Project Website:
>>Tim Sherratt (Tim.Sherratt@discontents.com.au)
>>disCONTENTS - Purveyors of fine ideas
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