AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXI, No. 2, Fall 1999


Center Leads Consortium to Create Web Database of Archival Finding Aids

The AIP History Center has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a one-year project to create a searchable Web database of archival finding aids. Containing 76 finding aids describing collections in nine archives, the database will significantly improve access to important collections documenting 19th and 20th century American physics and allied fields. Over the course of the next year, Center staff will mark-up and mount on the Web some of the most useful finding aids from the Niels Bohr Library and eight other institutions: California Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, Rice University, University of Alaska, University of Illinois, and University of Texas.

The collections represented in the project date from the late 19th century forward. They cover the development of America’s participation in the revolution in the physical sciences through 1940, and are especially strong for the years after the U.S. entered World War II. In addition to covering such broad areas as nuclear physics, geophysics, astrophysics and astronomy after 1945, they document the social and political aspects of modern science, including the mobilization of science for defense, the development of big science, science education, and the evolution of America’s postwar science policy.

This work is a continuation and expansion of the Center’s International Catalog of Sources for History of Physics and Allied Sciences (ICOS), which now contains over 7000 summary records from approximately 600 repositories, describing archival collections in physics and allied fields. Typically, researchers first learn about collections of interest to them by checking guides or catalogs such as the ICOS. They then look at finding aids to obtain more detailed information on what is in the collection. Getting access to hard copies of finding aids, which are quite voluminous, can be cumbersome and time-consuming. The Web is changing this as more and more archives “publish” their finding aids electronically. The Center has been mounting finding aids from the Niels Bohr Library for some time (there are currently ten on the Center’s Web site). The new project — creating a cross-searchable database of finding aids — is the next step beyond mounting HTML encoded finding aids on the Web as discrete documents. The end result will provide detailed and controlled access to information on collections.

In addition to the cross-searchable database, the project will expand on existing Web finding aids by fostering the free exchange of information over existing computing platforms creating a cross-searchable database covering the whole set. It will use a recently developed encoding standard for description of archival materials that has recently gained acceptance in the archives community: Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) Encoded Archival Description (EAD). Use of SGML EAD allows one to define the structure and content of a finding aid, going beyond the standard Web HTML which is simply a method of display. A group of SGML-tagged documents can be indexed according to predetermined criteria, and then searched as a group down to the most detailed level of description. Once the grant-funded project has created the core database, the AIP History Center plans to maintain and expand it on an ongoing basis, aided by user feedback.

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