AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXIX, No. 2, Fall 1997


Helping to Avert Loss of Historical Materials Documenting History of Science

Three disasters have been averted in the past few years by actions on the part of AIP Center for History of Physics staff. Readers of this Newsletter might well suppose that correspondence and other unpublished historical source materials of distinguished scientists are secured for future historians in appropriate repositories as a matter of course, but unfortunately this does not always happen. Close attention is needed, not only by historians and archivists but also by colleagues of scientists who have retired or passed away.

This summer, for example, we were able to help salvage the papers of an eminent New England physicist that were already on their way to the dumpster. After the physicist's death AIP Center staff wrote the university's archives but received no response. We followed up by telephoning the author of the obituary in Physics Today, who is at the same university. He reported that the physicist's office had been cleaned out the week before, but called back a few minutes later to say that he had managed to retrieve historically valuable correspondence and other materials from trash boxes. The papers have since been accessioned by the university archives.

In a second case, although archivists were alerted through the efforts of a historian working on behalf of the AIP Center, correspondence of a pioneering earth scientist was destroyed. Fortunately, a site visit shortly thereafter revealed that some correspondence still survived along with a wealth of other documentation. A third near disaster involved papers of a Nobel laureate. In this case, the physicist had apparently not been approached regarding his papers while he was alive, and no action to secure them had been taken for months after his death. It took a call from the AIP Center to the university archivist, and additional discussions to locate a physicist-colleague at that university, before the papers were deposited in the archives. These near disasters could just as easily have been real disasters resulting in serious losses of valuable documentation.

Ever since the foundation of the Center for History of Physics one of its core services and basic responsibilities has been to notify university and other institutional archives when significant collections become available, through the retirement or death of a scientist or for other reasons. We inform the archives staff about the papers, provide them with an analysis of the likely importance of the collection, and encourage them to contact the scientist or his or her family and colleagues. After a collection is accessioned by a repository we request a description to report in the Documentation Preserved Column of this Newsletter and to add to the computer database of the International Catalog of Sources for History of Physics and Allied Sciences. This work produces significant results, not only in directly helping to save professional papers of individual physicists, astronomers, geophysicists and the like, but also in generally raising the preservation consciousness of archivists and scientists, who may underestimate how much future scholars will value the manuscript materials of scientists. Over the past three years one hundred of the collections of scientists' papers that we've worked to preserve have been accessioned by archives. Well over 50% of AIP Center initiatives result in the preservation of papers, a high success rate for such work but still not satisfactory.

We ask our readers for help. Support your institutional archives--many are too understaffed to actively seek out all the significante source materials in their domain. And please contact the AIP Center for History of Physics if you learn of endangered, valuable scientific papers. One of the latest near disasters involving a trash collector was averted only when a physics department alerted the Center. You make a difference.

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AIP History Center Center 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