AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXVIII , No. 2, Fall 2006

 

In Memoriam: Joan Warnow Blewett
by Spencer Weart

Joan Warnow Blewett and Martin Klein at their marriage ceremony, 2005.

Click on photo to see a larger image

I first met Joan when I was a postdoctoral student, attending my first History of Science Society meeting. A young woman came up to me, found I was studying history of physics, and started enthusiastically telling me about a place I had never heard of, called the Center for History of Physics. Being an arrogant academic, I supposed that since I hadn’t heard of it, I didn’t need to know anything about it. But this woman thrust some brochures on me and insisted I keep in touch. It turned out the place was worth learning about after all.

When I became Director of the Center several years later, it was a small place: basically me, the Director, and Joan, the Directee. But she was the one who really knew what was to be done. She had been running the place as Acting Director for a year after the departure of the former Director, Charles Weiner, and she had been getting out the Newsletter, starting up fundraising, and handling a big educational project along with everything else. So she began to teach me about these things, and about libraries and archives in general. Most historians don’t know much more about libraries and archives
than a motorist knows about what is behind the gas pump; you just go in and fill up. It turned out there was a lot to learn. Joan herself had learned much of it on the job, since
like many librarians in those days she had not had any formal training in archives. Such formal training would not have been a big help for work at the Center anyway, where much had to be invented along the way.

Joan did not just learn about science archiving but helped to transform the field. She spent a long time working out concepts of “documentation strategy.” The aim of this new
program was not the traditional one of grabbing the best stuff you could find to hoard in your own archives, but to identify the key historical documentation and work out ways to get it preserved, no matter just where. This goal was implicit in the plans physicists had laid for the Center at its origin, but Joan figured out how to do it. She also raised many hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to get the work done. Meanwhile
the archives of our own Niels Bohr Library grew from roughly the size of a walk-in closet—and as messy, with a handwritten cardfile catalog—to a large modern space meticulously cataloged online. All this happened with Joan’s meticulous and ardent attention to doing everything right, up to the highest standards; and where there weren’t any standards in the archival community, she created them. Even after she retired, she continued to be a great help with her sound advice and her cheerful aid in fund-raising.

Joan’s most important monument is an invisible one: all over the country, in fact all over the world, there are papers preserved in archives that would otherwise have gone into a
dumpster, irretrievably lost. These rescued papers document science in the past century. And that has been so important, a part of the history of civilization, that I expect scholars will be using these papers for as long as human civilization exists. Not many people leave such a useful and important legacy.

Joan’s human qualities were as outstanding as her professional ones. She was interested in everything, and I remember countless lunches when we talked about politics, books,
and anything else in the world. Always upbeat and thoughtful of others, she was admired and warmly appreciated by everyone in the Institute (she knew them all, at least in the
old days when it was smaller), and broadly in the archival and scientific communities. All who knew her were greatly saddened to learn of her untimely death.

 


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