The Wide Wild World of Primary Sources: Documenting physics history outside our own collections

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December 3, 2018

Chip Calhoun, Digital Archivist

Our mission at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives is to “preserve and make known the history of modern physics”, and that mission extends beyond our own collections. Our archives mostly focus on the corporate records of the American Institute of Physics (AIP), our parent organization, and its member societies. Those records are supplemented by our ever-growing collections of oral histories and manuscripts, along with our collections of books and other published material. But there is a much wider world of primary sources in physics history than we could ever hope or want to contain at just one repository, so we help to guide researchers through that world. We do this through a unique library and archives catalog, and our finding aids website.

Unlike many archives, we generally do not try to collect personal papers of physicists. We believe that these are better handled by a physicist’s home institution, both because that is where many of the papers will have originated and because that is where researchers will expect to find them. Our Director guides collections to these institutions where appropriate, which often means staying aware of collections for physicists who are thinking about retirement. We also provide grants to archives to help process and describe these collections. We do all of this because physicists and archives often don’t have a lot of experience with each other, and to promote the value which science collections can hold for research in the humanities. 

Our library and archives catalog includes what we call the International Catalog of Sources (ICOS), which is an attempt to document the complete universe of collections in the history of physics. To access ICOS, visit our catalog and be sure to choose "Archives Worldwide: International Catalog of Sources" in the Location field; you can also use the filter options to get results for collections available here in NBLA, collections from around the world, or both. Some of our knowledge of these collections comes from our own work to guide collections to their home repositories. Much more of this knowledge comes from maintaining contact with other institutions to keep informed about what they’ve collected and/or described, and from staying aware of what other institutions have cataloged. 

Our finding aids website is an outgrowth of both our grants-to-archives program and ICOS. Finding aids are detailed descriptions of archival collections; they include detailed box lists, lists of subject terms, historical background for the collection and its creators, and typically other metadata specific to that collection. In 1999 we began a project to convert our paper finding aids into the Encoded Archival Description (EAD) format, which at the time was a new format for machine-readable finding aids and which is still a standard for the profession. Machine-readable finding aids have the benefit of being more cross-searchable, and they carry contextual information encoded alongside the text which can make them more useful than plain text when harvested by the big internet search engines. We worked with a small consortium of institutions to encode their finding aids into EAD as well. Over time the resulting web site merged with the work we were already doing for ICOS, and became a searchable listing of digitized finding aids at institutions around the world. 

We are constantly adding new collections to ICOS and our finding aids website, and we would be happy to hear from you if there is a repository we are not aware of.