Growth of a New Repository: National Radio Astronomy Observatory Archives

by Ellen N. Bouton

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), founded in 1956, is a facility of the National Science Foundation (NSF), operated for NSF by Associated Universities, Inc. Headquartered in Charlottesville, VA, NRAO has offices, employees and radio telescopes in multiple states and in Chile. We operate the Green Bank Telescope (GBT), the Jansky Very large Array (JVLA), the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), and are a partner in the nearly completed Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). In the Spring 2004 issue of this Newsletter I wrote about our newly-created Archives. At that time, we had completed a Web resource describing Nannielou Hepburn Dieter Conklin’s career as the first American woman working in radio astronomy, had begun processing of the papers of Grote Reber and John W. Findlay.

Since then, even with very limited staff (one professional and one assistant, two days/week each, plus occasional temporary student assistants), we have made immense progress. In spring 2005 we moved into a dedicated 1400 sq ft space in the new addition to our Charlottesville headquarters building, and materials began to come to us from both NRAO staff and from sources outside NRAO. Our processed collections now extend to ~435 linear feet and include papers of Ronald N. Bracewell, Bernard F. Burke, Marshall H. Cohen, John W. Findlay, Mark A. Gordon, David S. Heeschen, David E. Hogg, Kenneth I. Kellermann, John D. Kraus, Grote Reber, Arthur M. Shalloway, A. Richard Thompson, and Paul A. Vanden Bout. Processing of NRAO records is ongoing, as materials are transferred to the Archives from the Director’s Office and from other NRAO sites. We also have Web resources on the work of Harold I. (Doc) Ewen and on early radio astronomy courses. The papers of the late Donald C. Backer are a recent acquisition, but they have not yet been processed. We are grateful for the grant from the Center for the History of Physics which funded 2007 processing work on the NRAO Director's Office records for 1951-1978. A gift from the Reber Foundation allowed us to process the entire Reber collection and digitize most of the Reber documents and photos.

One of our most exciting recent acquisitions is the collection donated by Professor Woodruff T. Sullivan III. His book, Cosmic Noise: A History of Early Radio Astronomy (Cambridge University Press, 2009) is a history of radio astronomy from its beginning in 1933 through 1953, and represents 30 years of intensive research by Dr. Sullivan. In 2010 he donated his book research materials to the NRAO Archives, including the 188 audio tapes and related paperwork for the extensive set of interviews he conducted between 1971 and 1988 with 255 radio astronomers around the world. These interviews are a unique resource for the history of radio astronomy, as Sullivan talked to nearly everyone who had published at least one paper in the field of radio astronomy before 1960. The 2011 Pollock Award from Dudley Observatory funded a summer intern who digitized all of the aging tapes, worked on getting permissions from interviewees or their heirs/next of kin, and created a set of Web pages for the interviews. In summer 2012 she returned to work on transcribing interviews and scanning the approximately 50 interview transcripts Sullivan had made. We hope eventually to find funding to mount the transcripts on the Web.

We have created Web pages for finding aids and folder/item listings, all linked from the Archives home page, We have an online catalog ( which has served us well, but we are currently evaluating Archon, software from University of Illinois to manage information on archival materials and publish it on the Web, as a potential way of combining finding aids with the catalog’s search capabilities. Our holdings are, of course, listed in CHP’s ICOS.

We have had excellent support from NRAO staff members, some of whom have been instrumental in persuading other radio astronomers or their heirs to donate papers. The NRAO Archives continue to grow, and has become the de facto archive for radio astronomy in the U.S. We encourage visits or inquiries from researchers!


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