AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXIII , No. 1, Spring 2001

 

Preserving the Papers of Nobel Laureates and Other Leading Scientists
By Joe Anderson, Assistant Director, Center for History of Physics

One of the AIP History Center's primary efforts is to identify and place the papers of leading scientists at their home institution's archives or other appropriate repositories, combined with efforts to strengthen and support those archive programs. We are able to handle an average of a little over 50 new cases a year. Over the last few years we have altered the nature of the papers that we target. In the past, most new cases we initiated were for papers of scientists who had died recently. We have cut back on the number of these cases so that we can attend to particularly important individuals who are at retirement age or who for other reasons are ready to transfer their papers to an archives.

We began systematically focusing on living scientists in 1995 when we realized that even the papers of the best-known group of physicists, those who have received the Nobel Prize, are not always sure of finding a permanent home. We addressed this problem by contacting the home institution archivist for each living Nobel physicist at or past retirement age. We informed the archivist that they had laureates at retirement age, asked if they had already made arrangements for their papers, and offered to contact the physicists on their behalf. Since 1995 we have added new Nobelists to our list as they turned 65 and have regularly contacted their home institution archives. Over the last six years we have contacted archivists about the papers of more than 60 living Nobel physicists. The immediate results vary—many archivists tell us that they have already been in contact with the scientist, others say that they'll get in touch with them, and still others ask us to write on their behalf. Over the long term we believe that these efforts are helping to ensure that archivists and Nobel laureates work together to preserve resources that will provide future researchers with essential insights into the development of modern physics.

We are also concerned with the papers of other living scientists, including physicists of high caliber who have not received the Nobel Prize and astronomers and geophysicists who are not eligible for it. One sure source of information on the papers of important scientists is scientists themselves, who contact us to inquire about placing their own papers or those of colleagues. We have seen an increase in these direct contacts over the last year or so. We have also tried to come up with objective criteria for identifying individuals who have accomplished important work. For example, we have begun contacting the home institution archivists of retirement-age astronomers who have received three high honors in the field: the Russell Lectureship of the American Astronomical Society, the Bruce Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. Only nine men now living have received all three of these honors, and their papers will offer vital keys to understanding 20th century astronomy. For geophysicists, we have worked with the History Committee of the American Geophysical Union, who in 1997-1998 identified a set of leading geophysicists (see this Newsletter, Fall 1997). We surveyed them and are following up with senior figures who told us they have papers which should be preserved.

The goal of the work is to help identify the relatively small group of papers and records whose preservation is most critical to future generations' understanding of contemporary science, and then encourage scientists, archivists and historians to work together to preserve them. Those interested in more information on how to preserve papers should check our recently updated brochure, Scientific Source Materials: Saving Personal Papers and Archival Records in Physics and Allied Fields (on the Web at /history/source.htm), or contact the History Center's director or assistant director (listed on our staff page).


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AIP History CenterCenter for History of Physics
Email: chp@aip.org
Phone: 301-209-3165
American Institute of Physics 2003 American Institute of Physics, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3843. Email: aipinfo@aip.org Phone: 301-209-3100; Fax: 301-209-0843