Happy Birthday to Us!

Happy Birthday to Us!

NBLA Celebrates its 60th

Welcome to a very special post. We’re really excited about this one, because 1) we love working as a team to create blog posts and 2) this post is in celebration of our birthday!! Yes, that’s right, the Niels Bohr Library & Archives is turning 60 years old this September! 

During the last 60 years, NBLA has collected, preserved, shared, and supported the study of the history of the physical sciences. It has served scientists, historians, students, teachers, AIP staff, publishers, and the public. It has supported the work of other archives with grants and collaborative projects. It has worked to make available photographs, books, oral history interviews, manuscripts, recordings, and more to share stories of the scientists, institutions, and scientific societies that have contributed to physics. And it has taught many an early-career intern or assistant the tremendous value of libraries and archives, the author most certainly included.

"The cube" of AIP's headquarters building in College Park, Maryland. Two NBLA staff members can be seen standing beneath it.
Caption: NBLA director, Melanie Mueller, and a former librarian, Julie Gass, stand beneath "the cube" of AIP, which houses the library and archives' reading room and collection spaces, circa 2007. 
Credit: AIP

And now, to celebrate our spectacular (if we do say so ourselves) 60 years of service to the history of the physical sciences, we are going to share a few of our favorite moments from each of our six decades.


Our first decade

Presented by: Audrey

One of the first mentions of the Niels Bohr Library appears in the introductory page of AIP's 1961 Annual Report, where the plans to construct an "attractive Niels Bohr Library" are mentioned as part of a larger construction of a new wing of the AIP headquarters in New York City. The funds for the creation of the library were donated by the entrepreneur and engineer Dannie Heineman, who chose to name the library after his colleague and fellow physicist Niels Bohr. In the fall of 1962, construction was complete, the "handsome Niels Bohr Library of the History of Physics" was dedicated (note the shift in descriptor from '61 to '62 - a step up from "attractive" to "handsome"!), and the collection of books and publications for the library's holdings had begun.

Due to health concerns, Niels Bohr himself could not attend the dedication of our library bearing his name, but he sent a note which was read aloud by Ralph A. Sawyer:

I am much moved to have my name associated with the library for the history of physics, the establishment of which has been made possible by the generosity of the late Dannie Heinemann. Historical studies are an important tool for the understanding of man's position in the modern world, and in this century the history of science assumes particular significance. It is therefore gratifying to see so great an increase of creative scholarship in that field, and I hope that its furthering development will be greatly encouraged and facilitated by the opening of this library."

Audio recording from the Niels Bohr Library Dedication Ceremony, which took place on September 26, 1962 at the American Institute of Physics.

Within a year of the library's dedication, a Friends of the Niels Bohr Library of the History of Physics group was developed and began drives for contributions to support the library’s early work of gathering materials on the history of physics. Within two years of the dedication, the library had amassed over 3000 books and staff were well underway developing a unique classification scheme to meet the unique needs of the library.

During these first few years of the library’s existence, AIP was, through the support of a National Science Foundation grant, focused on documenting the work and primary source materials of 20th century physicists. This grant-funded initiative is the precursor to our documentation and preservation work and would lead to the eventual creation of the National (soon to be re-titled “International”) Catalog of Sources. By 1965, the Center for History and Philosophy of Physics was established as a formal division of AIP, which encompassed the Niels Bohr Library.

A diagram from AIP's 1968 annual report, which shows the growth of physics literature in the 20th century.
Caption: A fun diagram from the 1968 AIP Annual Report, which was captioned, "AIP information services to help physicists cope with the growth in physics literature."
Credit: AIP

The 70s

Presented by: Gergana

In its “teen” decade, the Niels Bohr Library continued to collect print publications contributing to the fuller documentation of the history of physics. These major projects were supported by the National Science Foundation, as it is shown in the library brochures. Funds for library acquisitions were provided mainly by the Friends of the Niels Bohr Library. The regularly issued Friends of the Niels Bohr Library Annual publication informed the library donors about the current financial status and events. Together with the Newsletter of the Center for History and Philosophy of Physics, these special publications have provided information about recent and ongoing events of the Center for History of Physics and the Library, and the Newsletter continues to do so to this day.  In the first several decades, the Niels Bohr Library was a subdivision of the Center and the Director of the Center oversaw the library staff and archivists.

In the 1970s, the library collection was focused mainly on nineteenth and early twentieth century physics, although earlier contributions of exceptional importance were also collected. The Library collected major journals in the disciplines, as well as microfilm copies of 19th and 20th century periodicals in physical sciences. The journals published by AIP and the member societies were also collected. The selection of published materials was provided by the Director of the Center and the library staff. The archivists gathered unpublished manuscripts, correspondence, autobiographies and oral history interviews, photographs and records of academic and industrial research institutions and professional societies.

One of the memorable events during this second decade of the existence of the Library was the Library staff’s contribution to the traveling Einstein Centennial Exhibit as a part of The Albert Einstein Centennial Celebration March 1979-March 1980. The Einstein Exhibit was a freestanding framework of 18 panels describing the life of Albert Einstein, his scientific, public and political work. It was rich in Einstein quotes, photographs, drawings and manuscript reproductions. This major project of the AIP’s Center for History of Physics and its Library was sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Study, and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as IBM. The photos in this exhibit and many other Einstein photos were included in Images of Einstein: A Catalog, 1979 (which can be found in this collection). This catalog was published again in 1989. Every institution or person could order a copy of an image from this print catalog, as it was before the time of being able to request or download a copy from a digital collection.

Photo of the front page of the Einstein’s Centennial Exhibit brochure edited alongside a page from the Images of Einstein: A Catalog, edition 1989.
Captions: Left- The front page of the Einstein’s Centennial Exhibit brochure. Right- A page from the Images of Einstein: A Catalog, edition 1989.
Photos by Gergana Kostova


Photo of a page of the APS Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Calendar for 1974.
Caption: A page of the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Calendar for 1974 year.
Photo by: Gergana Kostova

Another exceptional visual product presenting the rich photo archive of the Niels Bohr Library was the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Calendar for 1974, prepared for the American Physical Society. It was planned and compiled by Joan N. Warnow (Associate Director of the Center and the Library) and the AIP staff. Materials were selected by Charles Weiner, Mary Shoaf, and William W. Haven, Jr. (from American Physical Society). The Calendar designer was Terrence Gaughan. 


One of the other major projects of the Center of the History and Physics and the Niels Bohr Library was the National Catalog of Sources that was published in print from 1971-1980). During these years, the Center and its Library and Archives had published bibliographies, a selection of manuscript collections at various American repositories, and several renowned physicist correspondence catalogs.

The 80s

Presented by: Max

Ah, the 80s! A great decade for glam rock hair bands, shoulder pads, iconic movies and, of course, unprecedented global catastrophes and devastating international events. The 1980’s looms large in my imagination and I couldn’t wait to see what the Niels Bohr Library (and Archives) was up to during this chaotic decade.

One of the most notable events of the 1980s for the NBLA was the completion of our landmark survey of several national laboratories for the Department of Energy. Back in the 70s, our staff began to worry about how institutions outside of academia preserved records pertaining to the history of physics. This was before national labs had records management guidelines or archivists that could prioritize the preservation of research, and so a great deal of material was regularly lost. So the Center for the History of Physics (of which NBLA was a part), initiated a 3 year study of government funded laboratories under the purview of the Department of Energy. 

In the early 80s, this work was completed and the team wrote 3 reports including The Guidelines for Records Appraisal at Major Research Facilities. For this work, CHP was awarded the Society of American Archivists’ Distinguished Service Award in 1985– the first time the award was granted to a special library of its kind. In the award letter, SAA wrote “[The Center] has demonstrably contributed to archival theory and development of new practices” and “it has shown extraordinary ingenuity and resourcefulness in improving operations and methods.” A legacy to be proud of, for sure!

The 90s

Presented by: Chip

The 1990s brought some major changes to our Library. In 1993 we moved from New York to our current location in College Park, Maryland as part of a move of AIP headquarters. In 1997 our Associate Director Joan Warnow-Blewett retired, having joined as its Librarian in 1965. She remained on as Archivist Emeritus through the end of the decade, completing work on our Study of Multi-Institutional Collaborations. Joe Anderson was promoted to Assistant Director in her place.

A screenshot from the 1997 Center for the History of Physics website.
Caption: The Center for History of Physics website, 1997.
Credit: Internet Archive

In the mid-1990s internet usage expanded from a small group of researchers and hardcore enthusiasts into the mainstream. It’s hard to overstate how much this changed the distribution of information. The NBLA and CHP joined the web in 1996, and rapidly brought in new online services.



The first web version of our Emilio Segrè Visual Archives featured a tiny selection of 35 hand-selected photographs with relevant quotes; by 1998 it was a searchable web database with more than 1,000 photos.



New technology rapidly changed how we operated our library catalog. One of Joan Warnow-Blewett’s innovations was our International Catalog of Sources (ICOS); originally the National Catalog of Sources, ICOS is part of our strategy to document archives collections in physics no matter what repository the collections are at. Thanks in part to grant-funding, in the 1990s we expanded this catalog from 1,500 to more than 7,000 collections at institutions worldwide, including our own. Like most library catalogs, prior to the 1990s this was part of a card catalog; index cards with detailed information, cross-referenced by hand, and housed in massive wooden chests of card-sized drawers. By 1994 we had moved the catalog into our first online system, Minaret. Patrons couldn’t access this system directly, but we did upload many of our records to a large public service called the Research Libraries’ Information Network (RLIN), and patrons could ask us to search our internal catalog by sending us a letter, fax, or e-mail. In 1998 the catalog became directly available to users on the web, and in 1999 we switched to our current Horizon system; as a sign of the times, this switch was part of an AIP-wide effort to shore up our servers and software in preparation for the Y2K bug.

A portrait of Joan Warnow-Blewett looking over many records. She served as an archivist at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives and Associate Director for the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics.
Caption: Joan Warnow-Blewett, who led the Niels Bohr Library & Archives from 1965-1997.
Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection. Catalog ID: Blewett John G1

The new millennium

Presented by: Corinne

The aughties are a fun time for us to think back on at NBLA. Many of the projects that were started in the nineties were developed and expanded, such as the online ventures of the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives (ESVA), which benefited from an improved website and many newly digitized photos. In 2006, ESVA had over 7000 photos online and downloadable (after paying for them - they are free to use today!). It’s the decade in which we went from being the Niels Bohr Library to the Niels Bohr Library & Archives, and we officially became a separate, but highly connected, entity from the Center for History of Physics. It’s also the first decade in which many of us know or remember staff who worked at NBLA - indeed, some of us still do! Current staff members are Director Melanie Mueller and Senior Administrator Stephanie Jankowski, who joined us in 2005, and Digital Archivist Chip Calhoun, who joined in 2010. We benefit greatly from their experience and institutional memory!

Anyone who remembers the aughties will not be surprised that the online aspect of NBLA expanded greatly during this time period. Email became an important method of answering reference questions and arranging for visits to NBLA, whereas telephone and fax were more usual methods in decades before, as then-director Joe Anderson notes in the Spring 2009 History Newsletter. A huge development that was added to the online presence of NBLA in the aughties was our oral history interview transcripts, which we continuously add to and which is still one of our most highly-used and accessible resources. In the History Center, major initiatives included adding many new web exhibits, including the History of Cosmology, the Discovery of Global Warming, and the History of Cosmology. In this decade, the History Center also started and completed a project called the History of Physics in Industry, which was based on original interviews with over 130 staff members of high-tech companies, as well as other research. The final report can be found in our digital collections here. A final project of note that began in the 00s from NBLA is the brittle books microfilming project, in which NBLA microfilmed all of the books that were considered to be in a brittle condition in order to be able to serve these books to researchers without risking further damage to the books through handling. Microfilm is often still considered the most stable and cost-effective way to store information, even over digital mediums (see why the National Archives still microfilms collections here).

A portrait of Joe Anderson and Greg Good. Joseph Anderson was director of the NBLA, and Greg Good succeeded Spencer Weart as director of the History Center.
Caption: L-R: Joseph Anderson and Gregory Good in the Niels Bohr Library & Archives. Joseph Anderson was director of the NBLA, and Greg Good succeeded Spencer Weart as director of the History Center in this decade. 
Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, AIP Leadership and Staff Collection. Catalog ID: Anderson R Joseph C1 

Yet another important effort on the online front was the digitization of the Samuel A. Goudsmit papers, which was initiated in 2008 and completed, with the papers online, in 2011. There is a wonderful story in the Fall 2002 History Newsletter that demonstrates the importance and impact of this collection, as well as a bit of NBLA’s acquisitions philosophy, which is excerpted here. This article was written before we add the “& Archives” to our name, and we were still considered part of the Center for History of Physics. 

Excepts from “Niels Bohr Library Donates Documents on Former Concentration Camp,” By Katherine A. Hayes

In April the Niels Bohr Library received an e-mail reference request from Germany. This was not unusual, as our Web site is well known to historians around the world. However, this query was unique in that it diverged from the kinds of questions we usually receive. In late February, a German scholar doing research in the Niels Bohr Library had noticed some unusual materials in one of our most heavily used collections. He brought them to the attention of colleagues in Germany, who checked our holdings in the online finding aid…. [From the request] “Flossenbürg concentration camp memorial site is currently enlarging its collection of archival materials related to the history of Flossenbürg concentration camp and its about 100 sub-camps… As your excellent finding aid shows, Goudsmit’s collection also contains (photographic) material of Flossenbürg.” Responding to the request, we found a scrapbook with photographs of the buildings at Flossenbürg, exterior and interior. The site was built upon caves, and labels indicated areas devoted to stoneworking and prospective underground aircraft assembly. There were two large maps, one of Flossenbürg itself and one locating it within its region. There were also several folders of photostats of Third Reich documents. The longstanding policy of the Center for History of Physics is to place materials at whatever repository is most appropriate, aiming for the best public and scholarly access. Time and again we have taken materials that were endangered, only to let them go years later when a more appropriate repository was found. The Flossenbürg materials were clearly more relevant to the memorial and archives of the camp than to the historians of science who are the main users of the Niels Bohr Library. We therefore decided to turn over the originals to the Flossenbürg archives. We are keeping photocopies of all except the maps (which are large and expensive to copy).”*

A photocopy of a map that was given to Samuel Goudsmit.
Caption: This map is one of many in the photographed documents that Goudsmit received from an unknown source, donated by the Niels Bohr Library to the Flossenbürg memorial archives. Labelled “Secret” at top with the SS logo, it shows the overall location and top and side views of the tunnels proposed for aircraft assembly. The stamp at lower left is the U.S. Department of Energy’s certificate that the document is unclassified. 
From the AIP History Newsletter, Vol. XXXIV, Number 2 Fall 2002.

* Photocopied Flossenbürg materials may be found in our digital collections here.

Recent history

Presented by: Sam

In our most recent decade, NBLA staff announced and promoted a scan-on-demand service for our researchers. The service was advertised in the 2012-2013 winter edition of the history newsletter and the following was said:

Scanning projects always require a good amount of staff time and effort, and by repurposing items scanned for patron requests, we can ensure that we focus our time and attention on items that researchers are interested in. We are currently developing an image viewer that will allow us to share our scanned and digital items on the website. This is being adapted from a viewer that was developed in house for the Samuel Goudsmit papers, which were scanned in their entirety and put online in 2011.” 

This is worth noting, because digitization has grown to be a huge part of our reference services! We are able to help researchers all around the world by scanning the materials they need (whenever feasible for our small staff, of course) and sharing the digital files with them. Today, we are almost always working on scanning something for a researcher. And this was especially crucial throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, when coming to do research in the NBLA reading room was an impossibility. As the newsletter article states, one of the great benefits of reference-based digitization is the fact that the scans will be saved and made easily available for future researchers. I’m so glad that our reference services have expanded and adapted in this way over the last 10 years.

Two before and after shots of the archives showing the old and new style of shelving used to store collections.
Caption: The archives before (top) and after (bottom) the 2014 shelving project. Credit: AIP

And digital reference is really just one of the many ways we have grown over the last decade! In 2014, the hand-crank moveable shelves were replaced with electric ones in the archives. NBLA’s former director, Joe Anderson, retired in 2015 and Melanie Mueller became director in 2016! In 2018, the library accessioned the Wenner collection, which expanded the scope of our book collections to new and exciting areas. NBLA’s blog, Ex Libris Universum, was created in 2018 and the photos of the month, which share themed monthly selections from ESVA, joined the blog in 2019. We migrated the ESVA photo collections to live with the rest of our open access digital collections, where they can be easily accessed and downloaded by users in 2021. Earlier this year, a vault was constructed to expand our storage space for archival collections and rare books. And, most recently of all, three members of the NBLA crew, Allison Rein, Maura Shapiro, and Justin Shapiro, created Initial Conditions, AIP’s first ever podcast



As you can see, a lot has taken place in the last 60 years! In the decades to come, we look forward to continued growth as we share the history of the physical sciences with you.

Happy Birthday, NBLA!


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