AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XL , No. 2, Fall 2008
 

Posters and Poster Sessions: A History
By Francoise Waquet (CNRS, Parts)

(Dr. Waquet recently spent two weeks at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives doing research on an unusual topic, with the help of a grant-in-aid from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics.) 

The poster presentation is now a common way of communicating research in scientific disciplines. Its origins are obscure. The evidence I have collected so far leads to biochemistry and to the late 60s. Initially, posters consisted of graphs, diagrams, and pictures, but did not contain text (except captions). They were “prepared cards” used to “demonstrate” the research the author was presenting. Text entered posters quite soon and the name “poster session” was already in use in 1970. Two major biochemistry conferences in America, 1974 and 1975, were instrumental in diffusing the new format to other disciplines.

Poster sessions were introduced in American physics conferences by 1975. Other names used in the beginnings— “display sessions”, “booth sessions”—suggest a certain kinship with exhibits. Short descriptions and photos published in scientific journals document the early forms of the genre at a time when physicists were not used to it (the first mention of posters and poster sessions in the instructions for submission of abstracts published in the Bulletin of the American Physical Society dates from October 1977). Comments and surveys in this initial phase show a very prompt and positive response among scientists. They also reveal experiments in using the new format (for instance, presentation-discussion of posters in plenary sessions).

My project aims to write a history of the poster session, that is to say to reconstruct the evolution of the poster session, from the “prepared cards” used in the late 60s to the present digital posters. This diachronic perspective will serve to explore the following agenda: the spread of this format; the appropriation by scientists of a new mode of communication; the construction of a genre answering to certain intellectual needs and making use of specific material and technological inventions; the status accorded to the poster in a wider intellectual economy.

A period spent at the Center for History of Physics studying the records of several AIP Member Societies was very helpful for documenting the beginnings of poster sessions in physics, the context in which they originated, and the initial reactions of physicists to them; archives of some scientific societies provided material for detailed case studies.

Personal evidence is crucial in reconstructing the early history of poster sessions and documenting the first encounter of scientists with posters. Any suggestions and information about early poster sessions would be welcome (francoise.waquet@wanadoo.fr)


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