AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXX, No. 1, Spring 1998


Modern Physics Archives in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress

by Leonard C. Bruno

Established as a department of the Library of Congress in 1897, the Manuscript Division begins its second century of work this year. During those first hundred years the division acquired highly diverse holdings that support scholarly research in many aspects of America's political, cultural, and scientific history, with the number of items in the division's collections now totalling over fifty million items held in more than 11,000 collections. The overwhelming majority of these collections comprise the personal papers of individuals and families and document all aspects of American history and culture. In addition to containing the papers of twenty-three presidents of the United States and other major governmental figures, the national manuscript collection contains papers of military officers, diplomats, artists and writers, and leaders in science and technology. Among the Library's treasures in this area are such historic items as the paper tape of the first telegraphic message ("What hath God wrought?"), Alexander Graham Bell's first drawing of the telephone, and Orville Wright's 1903 diary.

The field of physics and its related disciplines is perhaps best represented by the Library's holdings of twentieth-century materials. This reflects not only a relatively recent emphasis on science by the Manuscript Division but its general guideline of seeking the papers of nationally eminent scientists whose lives and work impinged somehow on national or governmental policy-making. Among those whose scientific careers were linked closely to governmental involvement with science, the Library of Congress has the papers of geophysicists Merle A. Tuve and Lloyd V. Berkner, two shapers of post-war science policy. Other collections whose donors at some time were involved with major governmental science and technology projects include J. Robert Oppenheimer, John von Neumann, Vannevar Bush, Louis N. Ridenour, and Alan T. Waterman. The Library also has modest holdings of two earlier individuals responsible in part for the organization of American science: Alexander D. Bache and Cleveland Abbe.

Other collections of twentieth-century physicists are less easily categorized but highly significant nonetheless, ranging from nuclear physicists I.I. Rabi, George Gamow, and Leland J. Haworth to Nobel Prize winners Glenn T. Seaborg, C.J. Davisson, and George von Bekesy. Further examples of physics-related collections are the mathematical physics of Oswald Veblen and the acoustics and hydrodynamics of Carl H. Eckart. American astronomy is ably represented by the large collections of Simon Newcomb and Thomas J.J. See.

As the division enters its second century, it expects to continue to acquire, preserve, and make available for serious research important collections that cut across all fields of science and technology. For information contact Dr. Leonard C. Bruno, Science Manuscript Historian, Manuscript Division, The Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave., S.E., Washington, DC 20540-4680.

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