[HASN logo] No.35, December 1995 ISSN 0811-4757

Edited and published by Tim Sherratt (Tim.Sherratt@asap.unimelb.edu.au) for ASAP.

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The Australian Science Archives Project (ASAP): a personal view of the first ten years

As a practising physicist I have always been interested in the historical development of ideas in physical science. As an undergraduate in the 1939-45 War, one of my lecturers was Leo Pincherle, who had been a student of Enrico Fermi the Italian Nobel Laureate, and who taught from Fermi's notes. This was the first time that I appreciated the historical flow of ideas in science. My first local experience of the need for an atmosphere of respect for scientific archival sources occurred when a CSIRO friend John McNeill became interested in Henry Grayson (1856-1918) who gained an international reputation in Melbourne for his ruling engines and their micro-rulings for microscopy and their gratings for spectroscopic research. From McNeill I learned that Grayson's research notebooks and papers were all destroyed shortly after his death. The final Grayson ruling engine was retained in the University of Melbourne Department of Natural philosophy and one of its users was the Melbourne engineer William Stone. Stone's archives in the University of Melbourne Archives include a long series of letters to a scientific friend in Scotland and describe in frank detail some of the scientific work of the 1920s and 1930s. The contrast between the little available about Grayson and the rich store in Stone's archives made an impression on me.

In the early 1980s I was asked to be a Valuer for the Taxation Incentive for the Arts Scheme (TIA Scheme), which encourages donations to public institutions such as Museums, Art Galleries and University Archives and Libraries. Despite the word 'Arts', the regulations for the Scheme allowed donations of scientific books, journals and personal papers. By February 1995, there were about 370 approved valuers over a broad range of heritage areas. During the 1993-94 Tax Year there were some 900 donations which can be set against the income tax of the donors.

It was therefore with a mixture of relief, satisfaction and even excitement when Professor Rod Home of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne announced that he had got a grant to establish an Australian Science Archives Project in 1985 and asked me to join his committee to appoint the Archivist. The Project's acronym ASAP was well chosen; there was no time to be lost to establish a project to encourage the collecting of scientific archives and to make listings for as many of these archives as possible. Gavan McCarthy was appointed the first archivist. The establishing grant was only for a short time and from then on the Project has had to search for outside grants to do each listing.

Nothing epitomises the work of the Project as well as the story of the 'Rivett Records' concerning the find in 1987 of the full administration records of David Rivett who in 1912-1914 was the Australian secretary for the 1914 meetings in Australia of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The 1914 meeting, despite its coinciding with the outbreak of the 1914-1918 war, was a huge success. Gavan McCarthy and an assistant made a listing of the Rivett archive after it was given conservation treatment. I was one of the two valuers for the TIA Scheme and in reading Rivett's archive I could appreciate his secure tact and judgement.

Gavan McCarthy developed the team work of doing archival work in which he acts as a collecting point on a laptop computer for information from each member of the team doing part of the study of the archival records. In this way, projects which would have taken a year or more for one archivist working alone, can be done in a matter of days. My own experiences have been as a member of the three teams for the archives made at the closure of the factory of the Pigment Manufacturers of Australia (PMA) in Victoria; for the 100,000 photographs belonging to the State Electricity Corporation (SEC); and for the closure of the Research Laboratories of the SEC at Richmond, Victoria. This team method involves undergraduates and graduates in the History of Science, archivists in training and amateurs (such as myself) and the knowledge of this method is spreading. The combination of the TIA Scheme and the Australian Science Archives Project has changed the way in which scientific archives can now be made and there is every indication of further development for the next 10 years.

- Bert Bolton, Chairman, ASAP National Advisory Board

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