Scientific Source Materials

Saving personal papers and archival records in physics and allied fields

These guidelines are designed to aid scientists, their families, their colleagues, and scholars who study them, in preserving their personal papers and archival records. We indicate what types of source materials scholars will need to document the history of science and explain how these materials may be preserved.

Why save?

Many scientists see no need to preserve their letters, laboratory notebooks, financial records, outdated experimental apparatus, and associated documents and artifacts. Some feel that everything of scientific value has already been published; others feel that only overweening vanity could lead any but the greatest scientists to deposit papers in an archives.

But historians and other scholars are often appalled by the loss or destruction of materials which could have immeasurably aided their research and their understanding of the progress of science. The sketchy notes tracing the development of an important theory or the instrument used in a key experiment are significant cultural artifacts, easily as fascinating as a ship from the days of sail or the preliminary drafts of a well-known poem.

Materials illustrating less great but more typical science are valuable for other kinds of historical studies. The historian is deeply concerned not only with the final solution of a scientific research problem but with its evolution. Scholars may also wish to understand the context of the problem--how the research developed through the interactions of different groups; how the groups were organized, educated and funded; how research was linked to prevailing philosophies and economic needs of society, and so forth. By exploring such questions the historian hopes to illuminate the scientific process for the benefit of both the public and of science itself.

Just as a physicist is always seeking computational techniques or measuring instruments that open up new areas to investigation, so the historian constantly searches for letters, diaries, notebooks, and informal reports. Scientific apparatus is also of interest and provides as true a picture of the mind of the past as the furnishings of a historic house provide of past society. Nowadays, when scientific publication is forced to be so concise that many details of instruments and calculations are omitted, historical documentation is more precious than ever. We therefore urge that it be saved, to form the foundation for a fuller understanding of the life of science, so essential to modern humanity.

Who should save?

Historians, sociologists and other researchers are concerned about the broad spectrum of scientific life, not just Nobel-level research. Papers of influential scientists and records of organizations at many levels, including teachers and administrators and research collaborations, should often be preserved. However, archives are able to preserve the papers and records of relatively few scientists. These guidelines describe the types of material that are especially valuable for researchers. To discuss the historical value of specific papers or records, contact the archives or records management staff at your institution to learn their specific policies or get in touch with the AIP Center for History of Physics.

What to save?

Scientists are often surprised by the range of materials which historians and sociologists of science seek. Major categories include personal and professional papers of scientists, records of scientific institutions and collaborations, and apparatus. A trained archivist or historian, aware of the potential research value of these materials, should be consulted before any papers, records, or artifacts whatsoever relating to important scientific developments are destroyed. Of prime interest are such personal and professional papers as:

  • Correspondence (including e-mail)
  • Student course notes
  • Laboratory notebooks & other research files
  • Diaries & appointment calendars
  • Drafts of scientific publications
  • Other writings of the scientist
  • Photographs and other pictorial works
  • Biographical materials

"Non-scientific" material such as scientists' correspondence with family and friends and other sources which document interactions between the scientist and the social, political, and religious life of the times are valuable and should also be preserved. Informal photographs are especially important in showing the human side of scientists' lives.

Core institutional and collaboration records that should be preserved include:

  • Grant applications
  • Minutes, memos, and administrative files
  • Legal and policy records
  • Summary financial records
  • Reports
  • Membership lists

Electronic records present a still unresolved challenge for archivists and researchers. While they constitute a vital and growing part of modern documentation, at this point there are no generally applicable strategies for preserving them over the long haul. The best procedure that we can currently recommend is to print out significant e-mail, reports, and other electronic information and preserve them as paper files. See our Fall 2000 Newsletter article on electronic media.

Ephemeral publications such as instrument catalogs, photocopied conference proceedings and reports, and other near-print materials should be preserved because they are historically interesting and typically hard to find. Journal articles on the other hand are available in libraries, and preprints or reprints should not be included in archival collections unless they are different from the published work or contain significant annotations. Books may be donated separately to a library, such as the AIP's Niels Bohr Library.

Unique apparatus which helped achieve a major advance should be saved, not cannibalized for the next experiment. Of course this will often be impractical, but there may be one central piece, representative of the experiment, which can be preserved. Further, a record of the entire apparatus can be safeguarded in the form of materials like engineering plans, shop drawings, models, purchasing records, computer tapes, and photographs.

Where to save?

Whenever possible, scientists' papers should be saved at the institution with which they were most closely associated, and scientific organizations should preserve their own organizational records. It is here that scholars will first seek a scientist's papers, and here that they will find administrative records of the institution, papers of colleagues, and related materials which will provide a well-rounded view of the scientist's work and the atmosphere in which it was effected.

Most academic institutions and a few corporations have their own archives. The National Archives and Records Administration is responsible for preserving the permanently valuable records of U.S. scientific agencies and most federal contract labs, and other countries have comparable agencies. Some of a scientist's papers may be the property of the employer, especially in government and corporate labs. Check questions of ownership with the organization's legal office.

If the home institution is unable to preserve the papers and records, there are other repositories, including the Library of Congress and regional historical societies, which may be willing to take them. The AIP Center for History of Physics' archival collecting is normally restricted to photographs, oral history interviews, microfilm copies, and records of AIP and its Member Societies, but it occasionally accepts other archival materials as a repository of last resort. A small number of places seek to preserve historic scientific apparatus; notable among these is the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

For advice on locations of appropriate repositories, on procedures for preserving historical materials, or any related questions, we encourage you to contact the AIP Center for History of Physics. The AIP's chief concern is that important papers and records be saved at the most suitable location.

How to save?

Archivists are professionals who are trained in how to preserve historical papers and records and make them accessible for researchers. They will be glad to discuss papers with you and answer questions about what materials should be saved and where, as well as means of protecting confidential files, granting permission for access, appraisal for tax purposes, copyrights, and other procedural matters.

And don't worry if the papers are messy or disorganized. Archivists do not ask that donors arrange or organize materials, and in fact it is best to leave the sorting of documents to archivists. Drawing on the advice of both scientists and historians, they can be the best judge of what should be retained and what may be thrown out safely, and they can arrange the papers in the most useful way. Until then the documents should be retained in their original order, which sometimes provides scholars with valuable clues. Any removal, editing or rearrangement of material, unless done expertly, can destroy much of the file's value.

Once a commitment is made to deposit materials in an archives, please report this to the AIP Center for History of Physics. The Center will record the materials in the International Catalog of Sources for History of Physics and Allied Sciences, which is regularly consulted by scholars seeking resources for their research.

When to save?

We hope scientists and their families, as well as researchers who discover significant resources, will give careful consideration to the preservation of correspondence, notebooks, photographs, scientific apparatus and records of its construction, and similar materials, which may be of far greater importance to scholars than the owner may think.

The best time to arrange for their preservation is now, while they are still intact in owner's hands. Many scientists make arrangements with a repository long before they reach retirement age, and donors should keep in mind that archives are usually happy to take in files as they become inactive, rather than taking everything at once. However, if papers are not handled earlier, it is especially important that they be cared for at times of change, such as when moving offices or homes, switching jobs, at retirement, or after the scientist's death.

People must take action to provide the source materials for the scholarly studies that will be essential to any understanding of our times. Arranging for the preservation of papers is an acknowledgment that every scientist's work is a link, not only with the past but also with the future.

Donations, tax deductions, and support

Papers and records are usually transferred to archives as a simple gift, covering both the physical materials and copyright. Donors should talk with their financial advisors if they seek a tax deduction for donating papers. An archives receiving a donation is not allowed to give tax advice or appraise the monetary value of collections, although it may be able to provide lists of appraisers who will appraise the collection for a fee. It is up to the donor to arrange for and cover the costs of appraisals.

Nearly all archives are non-profit organizations, and accepting papers and records for permanent preservation represents a significant financial commitment. While most repositories do not require financial support from donors in accepting collections, donors who can provide assistance are encouraged to do so.