AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXVII , No. 2, Fall 2005

  Preservation of Archives at the U.S. Naval Observatory
by Brenda G. Corbin, Librarian

The majority of the early records of the U. S. Naval Observatory (USNO), mid 1800s to about 1930s, are currently in Record Group 78 at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). A smaller amount of USNO archives, up to 1970, has also been placed in NARA. The remainder of the archives are still housed in the USNO Library. These archives range from the mid 1800s to the present.

Much of the archival materials from the 1930s forward had for many years been kept in the various departmental offices where the records originated. Meanwhile, as older staff retired, many feared that the history files in their offices might not survive and turned these records over to the Library. These files also contained much non-historical material not belonging in the archives. A recent acquisition was the papers (about 25 boxes) of the former Scientific Director, Dr. K. Aa Strand (1907-2000).

Steven J. Dick, former historian of the USNO, spent over 15 years writing and researching the history of the USNO, Sky and Ocean Joined, the U. S. Naval Observatory 1830-2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2003). Dr. Dick organized the archives on hand and used these plus other sources to write this complete history. Once the history was finished, the historian's position was abolished due to budget cuts, but material kept arriving in unsorted boxes.

At this point, the USNO History Committee was reactivated and the Librarian named Chair. The Committee decided to transfer all archival material to NARA. Much work would be involved and each Committee member already had a full-time position at USNO. One retiring staff member agreed to pack his department's archives (ca. 1950s-early 1990s) into the boxes required by NARA. Materials from file cabinets were placed into 97 boxes and he wrote very brief notes about the contents of each box. However, no time has been available as yet to enter this contents information onto the required forms SF-135 which must be placed in each box before transfer to NARA. How could the rest of this transfer be accomplished? Several solutions were suggested, some unusual.

One proposal was an Eagle Scout project, in which the Scouts would move materials from file cabinets and other boxes into the approved NARA boxes and gather the boxes (more than 300) into a central location for pick-up by NARA. There would be no sorting of materials, only direct transfer into NARA boxes. However, the Scout Council did not approve this project, preferring a more traditional Eagle project.

A smaller work project took place this summer when Science and Engineering Apprentice Program (SEAP) students assigned to the USNO spent a seminar period (1.5 hours) transferring materials from older boxes to the NARA boxes. Although no weeding or sorting of these materials could be done without much more training, the contents of approximately 25 boxes were moved into the NARA boxes. Even this very short project probably gave these students some appreciation for the archival materials.

The Librarian, who retired on October 1, 2005, proposed a part-time position where she would work only on the archives project until the files are ready to be transferred. Due to budget cuts within the Department of Defense, this position has not yet been approved. With most of the older USNO staff members retiring, it is a real concern that corporate memory of these archives will be lost. Although the members of the History Committee are aware of the problem and concerned, finding time and personnel to carry out this archives transfer project will be very difficult.

The problem facing the USNO is not unusual. As institutions face budget cuts, historians and archivists are not high on the list of required employees: scientific positions must take precedence. We can only hope that a solution can be found before someone later decides these materials are useless and relegates them to a dumpster.


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AIP History CenterCenter for History of Physics
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