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

 

Preserving the History and Heritage of Agilent
Technologies, Part I
The Meaning of “Priceless” at Agilent

by Cindy Alfieri, Agilent Library

Click here to read part II

Arthur Schawlow (left) adjusts a ruby optical maser during an experiment at Bell Labs, while C.G.B. Garrett prepares to photograph the maser flash. Credit: Lucent Technologies’ Bell Laboratories, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Hecht Collection.

Click on photo to see a larger image

You are probably familiar with the advertisement that itemizes the high cost of planning a major event and ends with the word “priceless.” At Agilent Technologies, the term applies equally well to laboratory notebooks, equipment manuals, application notes and technical reports. These are the main archival documents that the library at Agilent hunts down, pulls from dumpsters, blows the dust off, lovingly catalogs and ferociously
protects so that future researchers will have access to this trove of information. Nowadays this level of commitment is required in order to save materials before they are unthinkingly tossed out when people change jobs, office locations or employers. Part of
the commitment involves educating people on the importance of retention (“just because that product is obsolete or out of support doesn’t mean you should toss the manual!”). As Hewlett-Packard Co-founder Dave Packard said in his book The HP Way,
people want to do the right thing. Just a simple statement on the why and wherefore of the archival operation is all it usually takes to get people onboard. And that attitude is largely why our archives continue to grow.

In 1999, the Hewlett-Packard corporation spun off its test and measurement organization as an independent entity called Agilent Technologies. A library was created for the entire Agilent research community, to be both a 21st century reference library and a protector of the historical record. Our mission for preservation is simple: track down the materials before they get into the dumpster or disappear into the ether; make the materials as
broadly accessible as company policy allows; and raise visibility internally for why the materials deserve to be preserved.

Lab Notebooks. For many years, Agilent and HP have had an informal process for maintaining lab notebooks. We have used notebooks of various types, colors and sizes to record the process of research and the interpretation of results. The notebooks
protect the company’s intellectual property, provide a tool for referring back to the processes that achieved certain results and capture knowledge in a systematic fashion. Agilent’s process is now more formal. The library purchases the notebooks for the company, disseminates them and obtains them back for preservation. Although we recently investigated the prospect of moving from the traditional print format to electronic lab notebooks, the traditional approach continues as the format of choice. Our bioinformatics group does maintain digital notebooks, however, because of the large body of digital data they capture to document their experiments.

Equipment Manuals. One day an engineer phoned the library in a panic, relating that he had just started supporting an old product that was still in support life and that he needed a copy of the manual—which, to his surprise, he couldn’t find on the Web. The library had a copy and sent it to him. This fairly typical scenario is the result of an ongoing effort to search the world, literally, for manuals and bring them back to California for cataloging and retention. In 2005, for example, we received a half-ton of print manuals from Agilent-UK. The manuals typically come to us in binders and vary from 50 pages to 500
pages. Sometimes we see other formats: we recently received thousands of manuals from Agilent-Brasil on microfiche. Last year, a researcher sent us a URL with dozens more links to old equipment manuals. (The trouble with the links, however, is that you never know when they’ll suffer from link rot.) We are always excited when folks start a conversation this way: “I’m not sure you want these, but I thought I’d let you know I have some old manuals here.” Our current collection of manuals includes both obsolete products and currently supported products.

We recently worked with one of our business units to locate paper copies for dozens of obsolete HP manuals that were among the 200 most-requested manuals from the business unit’s external web site. Those manuals were converted to PDF format and
are now freely available on Agilent’s external web site. Our vision is to one day provide that level of access to all equipment manuals as PDF documents.

Application Notes. Application notes are short documents that describe to the user the application(s) for a particular technology. Again, the library is a central point of contact for both Agilent and HP application notes. We are in the process of digitizing all the application notes for easier access.

Technical Reports. Agilent/HP technical reports describe scientific or technical research issues, progress or results–effectively, the R&D within the company. They are used to promote the exchange of ideas internally and to serve as a catalyst toward further research. Although the majority of our reports are for internal use only, we consider broader (external) release where competitive intelligence is not at issue.

As with most research-focused companies, Agilent uses many other forms of data capture to assist in filling in the big picture of invention and discovery. While some of that documentation turns out to be quite ephemeral, much of it–such as the formalized
approaches noted above-does survive as historical record. And that survival is priceless. For further information, contact Cindy Alfieri, Global Manager, Library, Agilent Technologies, e-mail: cindy_alfieri@agilent.com.


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