AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXVI , No. 1, Spring 2004

Archival Program Established at National Radio Astronomy Observatory
by Ellen N. Bouton

Starting from scratch that is the challenge of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) Archives. The NRAO, a facility of the National Science Foundation (NSF), was started in 1957. Headquartered in Charlottesville, VA, NRAO has offices and radio telescopes in four states, and is a partner in several international cooperative projects.

Dedication of NRAO
Dedication of NRAO on October 17, 1957. L-R: Dr. R.M. Emberson, Dr. L.V. Berkner, G.A. Nay, Dr. J.W. Findlay (seated), Prof. N.L. Ashton, Dr. D.S. Heeschen, and H. Hockenberry. A model of the 140-foot telescope is on the table behind Dr. Findlay. Image courtesy of NRAO/AUI.

Click on photo to see a larger image.

Although there had been occasional suggestions over the years that we consider archives, no effort was ever made to collect and organize the materials relating to NRAO's founding and history, nor to save documentation of the decision-making and construction processes for the many different instruments we have built and operated. These materials those that still exist are certain to be scattered about in attics, storage buildings, barns, staff offices and even the basements of retired staff, in any one of four states. Identifying what we have and what we ought to have are among the challenges ahead.

In summer 2001, as NRAO's Observatory Librarian, I approached the NRAO Director with recommendations gleaned from the newly-published AIP Study of Multi-Institutional Collaborations and urged development of an archival policy, with input from NRAO staff and from librarians and historians at other institutions. During the course of this study, I learned that most North American astronomy institutions had neither policies nor archives. The NRAO policy and plan for the archives were approved in November 2002. The Archives home page is at www.nrao.edu/archives and our Archives policy is at www.nrao.edu/archives/archpolicy.shtml.

In April 2003, after retiring as Librarian after 28 years in the NRAO library, I began working part-time as NRAO's first archivist. Material for the archives has begun to appear like magic.

The first completed project is a Web resource describing Nannielou Hepburn Dieter Conklin's career as the first U.S. woman working in radio astronomy: www.nrao.edu/archives/Conklin/conklin.shtml.  Dr. Conklin wrote "Nan Dieter Conklin: A Life in Science" in 2001, covering her work from 1946-1977, beginning at the Maria Mitchell Observatory and ending at University of California, Berkeley.

Other work in progress includes:

  • Papers of Grote Reber, 1911-2003. Reber was the "father" of radio astronomy, who built the first radio telescope in his back yard in Wheaton, IL, in 1937. (For biographical information see www.nrao.edu/whatisra/hist_reber.shtml) NRAO is already listed in the AIP's International Catalog of Sources as the repository for Reber materials, and I am beginning to inventory and arrange the collection, which is contained in multiple packing crates and three file cabinets; we expect to receive more material from his estate.
  • Papers of John Wilson Findlay, 1915-1994, donated by his family. He was a long time NRAO employee, a project manager and engineer involved in building our 140-foot, 300-foot, and 85-foot telescopes in Green Bank, WV, and our 12-meter telescope in Tucson, AZ. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences Space Sciences Board in the late 1960s into the early 1970s, and active over many years, including a period as chair, with the Inter-Union Commission for the Allocation of Frequencies for Radio Astronomy and Space Science.
  • In late spring, I will begin an inventory of files from the Director's Office dating back to 1957, currently in an attic storage area. No one has any detailed knowledge or listing of what is in those multiple file cabinets.

Grote Reber and his radio telescope
Grote Reber and his radio telescope. This picture shows the telescope as restored at the NRAO site in Green Bank, West Virginia. Image courtesy of NRAO/AUI.

Click on photo to see a larger image.

NRAO has an addition to its headquarters building in Charlottesville under construction, with a targeted completion This new building will include a large, dedicated archives space. That space is certainly an indication of NRAO's commitment to developing and maintaining its archives. The new space will be available in the nick of time. An increasing number of people are contacting me about materials they have that will be wonderful additions to our archives. My current 8x12 foot office cannot hold too many more cartons!

For further information contact Ellen N. Bouton, Archivist, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, 520 Edgemont Rd, Charlottesville, VA 22903-2475 Phone: 434-296-0203, E-mail: ebouton@nrao.edu.


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