AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXX, No. 2, Fall 1998


Preserving Endangered Books, Tapes and Films in the Niels Bohr Library

The Niels Bohr Library houses many historical source materials that are rare or entirely unique, and many of these need attention if they are to last for posterity. Aided by increased donations from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics, the staff have become more active in preservation work.

The Library has many books and pamphlets which are not known to exist elsewhere, and others (for example most textbooks) which no other library feels a responsibility to preserve permanently. As noted in the Fall 1996 Newsletter, a donation in memory of Elliott Montroll allowed the Library to hire a part-time library preservation assistant. Her work focused on strengthening the hinges of more than 1600 books, a simple repair which is amazingly valuable for increasing the book's lifetime. Work has now turned to making sturdy, acid-free folders to enclose brittle pamphlets--for example, the Library's remarkable collection of ephemeral items from the 1920s which explain, or attack, Einstein's theory of relativity.

The Library's film collection has received more attention in recent years than ever before. Staff have been converting 8 mm and 16 mm archival film to videotape to allow better access while saving the original films from wear and tear. Betacam SP masters and VHS copies were made for home movies (including many shots of physicists and astronomers) by William Meggers and Peter Van de Kamp, three films of International Congresses of Physics by Heinrich Medicus, and both the long and short versions of the Harvard Project Physics film People and Particles, which includes numerous candid shots of physicists at work. For film where the original version is elsewhere, staff have been rehousing films whose canisters are rusty. An example is the 170 reels of old Encyclopedia Britannica physics instruction films, which include lectures by many of the great physics teachers of the postwar years. Meanwhile all films were tested for acidity level. Only a few reels had high acidity; these must be rehoused and separated from the other films.

The Library is committed to preserving for the future all the information on its audiotapes, although such tapes have a limited lifetime. In past years duplicates were made of all the older and more important tapes. We have now made duplicates of all the untranscribed oral history interview tapes. The duplicates are stored on a different floor in the Library as a safety measure in case of a disaster. Another necessary procedure is "exercising" all tapes (playing them to prevent sticking and print-through) while spot-checking quality. This must be done roughly every ten years.

The next major problem to be addressed will be the many books which need considerable preservation work. Some can be put in acid-free boxes, like the pamphlets, but the rarest and most rapidly deteriorating materials should be either microfilmed or photocopied. Audiotapes also need further preservation attention. More than 200 reels of miscellaneous lecture and oral history interview audiotapes need to be reformatted onto higher quality materials. Both projects will take many years at the current level of available funding. Additional funds will be sought from foundations and from the Center's Friends.

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AIP History Center Center for History of Physics
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