AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXIV, No. 1 Spring 2002


Scientific Archives in the UK: Progress at the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists
by Peter Harper, Director, NCUACS

IAU Symposium in 1977
Leading astronomers at IAU Symposium 80 in 1977; L-R: Charlotte Moore Sitterly, Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin, Margaret Russell Edmondson, Frank K. Edmondson, Richard J. Tayler. Edmondson's files as Treasurer of the American Astronomical Society were transferred to the Niels Bohr Library last year and have now been fully processed. Photograph by David DeVorkin, AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives. Click on photo to see a larger version.

Founded in 1973, the National Cataloguing Unit for the Ar chives of Contemporary Scientists (NCUACS) is now entering its thirtieth year of locating, cataloging and finding repositories for the archives of contemporary British scientists and engineers. (See this Newsletter, May 1988) It is a small unit, based at the University of Bath since 1987. We work in association with the Royal Society and are funded by a great variety of scientific societies and charitable trusts and foundations. We see ourselves as intermediaries between scientists and their families who own the archives, and the repositories who will administer the archives and make them accessible to researchers, after processing at Bath. Although the idea of a processing center for scientific archives was quite an original one thirty years ago, it has proved very successful. Since 1973, 220 archives of British scientists have been cataloged for 49 national, institutional and university repositories throughout the United Kingdom. The scientists include 143 Fellows of the Royal Society and 20 Nobel Laureates.

Our remit ambitiously covers all the sciences, but physics and allied sciences have always been an important part of our work. They currently account for just over 20% of the archives processed. The scientists include Nobel Laureates E.V. Appleton, Patrick Blackett, Cecil Powell, Abdus Salam and J.J. and G.P. Thomson, and a distinguished group of theoreticians and experimentalists including David Bohm, Otto Frisch, R.E. Peierls and R.V. Jones, Churchill's scientific adviser during the Second World War. Current projects include the archives of Kathleen Lonsdale, the X-ray crystallographer who was the first woman to be elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1945 and the geophysicist S.K. Runcorn. Work on the Runcorn archives is partly funded by a much appreciated cataloging grant from the Friends of the AIP Center for History of Physics. Future plans, subject to successful funding applications, include a program to catalog the archives of six University of Bristol physicists, including additional Cecil Powell papers recently discovered in the Physics Laboratory over thirty years after his death.

In recent years, Web access to information about the archives we process has become very important. However, as a small organization with limited resources, it is essential that we involve ourselves in collaborative projects. We have been associated since its inception with the UK Higher Education Hub, which provides a national gateway to descriptions of archives in universities and colleges. Data about almost all the archives we have processed has been contributed to the database which can be searched at Missing from the database is the archive of Abdus Salam, which is deposited outside the UK at the ICTP, Trieste, Italy. An even more ambitious project is the national online archive for England, Access to Archives (A2A). We are part of a consortium of science institutions, including the Royal Society, which is contributing 27,000 catalog pages of the archives of leading nineteenth and twentieth century scientists to A2A. We are contributing over half the page total but, as a consequence of political devolution in the UK, our catalogs of archives deposited in Wales and Scotland (which includes the Appleton archive at Edinburgh) are not included. The Access to Archives database can be accessed at and the first of the science consortium's catalogs are expected to be added to the database shortly.

In our thirtieth year the demand for our services is as great as ever, and we know of many exceptional archival collections which could be brought into the public domain through our work. If we have a concern, it is that funding bodies properly excited by electronic archives and Web developments will discount the importance of the very considerable paper records of science of the second half of the last century which still require traditional processing.

For further information contact Peter Harper, Director, NCUACS, University Library, University of Bath, Bath, United Kingdom BA2 7AY, or e-mail,

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