AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXII , No. 2, Fall 2000


Finding Aids to Major Collections at Ten Archives Now Online

AIP History Center staff members
AIP History Center staff members (from bottom to top) Katy Hayes, Clay Redding, and Joe Anderson examine the new Physics History Finding Aids Web site.

A consortium of ten institutions led by the AIP Center for History of Physics is pleased to announce a major new resource in the history of physics, astronomy, geophysics and allied fields: a cross-searchable online database of findings aids with detailed information on more than 60 manuscript and archival collections. The Physics History Finding Aids Web site ( is the largest subject-based consortium of finding aids on the Web. Researchers can use it to get detailed information on a wide variety of important resources in 20th century American science and science policy from major repositories throughout the U.S. The collections cover a broad variety of fields centered around physics, astronomy and geophysics, with information on some of the most significant topics in modern science. They include personal papers of major and also more typical scientists, administrative records, and lab notebooks and other scientific materials.

Some of the collections are well known to historians of science. Others are relatively unfamiliar and little used, either because they haven't been widely publicized or because finding aids haven't been available until recently. The collections contain the personal papers of individuals like William Meggers, George Ellery Hale, Percy Bridgman, and Robert Millikan who helped America enter the world of modern science in the first decades of the 20th century; physicists from the World War II era who "changed the world" and moved America to the forefront in physics and allied fields; and scientists who helped create nuclear physics, astrophysics, geophysics and the other fields that developed after the war. They contain the papers of seven Nobel laureates in physics, including John Bardeen, Richard Feynman, and William A. Fowler, as well as leading lights like James Van Allen and Sydney Chapman. The collections also provide a wealth of institutional records that help portray the growth and development of America's modern scientific infrastructure. In addition to documenting individuals and institutions, the collections reflect the pervasive networks of contacts and collaborations within the scientific community. By searching across the finding aids researchers are able to identify and explore these connections and relationships in ways that have not been possible before.

The finding aids typically contain an introductory essay describing the main features and subjects of the collection and a listing of box and folder contents, sometimes running to hundreds of pages. They are fully encoded in SGML-EAD format, the emerging archival standard. A search engine allows users to search across the full texts (or, if preferred, only the introductions or other portions) of the entire set of finding aids. Having thus identified a particular finding aid of interest, users can call up its text and search it using their own browser, download and print out parts of interest, or otherwise investigate the contents. Locating collections of interest is not the only use of the site. Historians will appreciate that the finding aids will facilitate advance preparation to make their visits to archives more efficient, and in many cases will allow them to get materials useful for their research by correspondence without the expense of a visit at all.

The Physics History Finding Aids Web site is a continuation and expansion of the Center's International Catalog of Sources for History of Physics and Allied Sciences (ICOS, online at under the Niels Bohr Library heading), which now contains over 7000 summary records from approximately 600 repositories worldwide. The pilot project to create the Web site was supported by a one-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (see the announcement in our Fall 1999 newsletter) and comprises ten institutions: the American Institute of Physics, California Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, Rice University, University of Alaska-Fairbanks, University of Illinois UrbanaChampaign, University of Iowa, and University of Texas-Austin. Now that the initial work of creating the database is completed, we're looking forward to expanding its resources by adding new collections and new member institutions to the consortium. We particularly welcome inquiries from archivists with finding aids that should be online at this site. We invite you to search the Physics History Finding Aids Web site itself and explore the related Web pages. Please send us your suggestions and questions by using the Feedback button.

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AIP History CenterCenter for History of Physics
Phone: 301-209-3165
American Institute of Physics 2003 American Institute of Physics, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3843. Email: Phone: 301-209-3100; Fax: 301-209-0843