Scientific Source Materials

Saving personal papers and archival records in physics and allied fields

These guidelines are designed to help scientists, their families, and their colleagues preserve their personal papers and archival records. Saving the papers and records of science is an acknowledgment that every scientist's work is a link between the past and the future.

Why save?

Richard Feynman began his 1965 Nobel Lecture by saying that "We have a habit in writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover all the tracks, to not worry about the blind alleys. . ." and mistakes made along the way. These critical but neglected aspects of scientific work are documented in the letters, emails, laboratory notebooks, diaries, grant proposals and other unpublished papers of individual scientists, and they are complemented by organizational records, photos and other materials.

Three years before Feynman's lecture, the American Institute of Physics created the initial version of the AIP History Programs, which today consist of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives and the Center for the History of Physics. The Programs are designed to provide physicists and allied scientists with advice and support in preserving their historically valuable papers, as well as to preserve the record of AIP's Member Societies, along with books, photos, oral histories, and other materials.

Scholars are deeply concerned not only with the final solution of a scientific research problem but with its evolution, and they depend on original, unpublished sources to understand this process. They 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; and how research was linked to prevailing philosophies and economic needs.

Who should save?

Archivists and researchers are concerned about the broad spectrum of scientific life, not just Nobel-level research. Papers of influential scientists, including teachers and administrators, along with records of organizations at many levels, may be important for a historical understanding of science. These guidelines describe the general types of material that are especially valuable. To discuss the historical value of specific papers or records, contact the archives or records management staff at your institution or get in touch with the AIP History Programs.

What to save?

Scientists may be surprised by the wide range of materials that archivists and scholars seek. Major categories include personal and professional papers of scientists and records of scientific institutions and collaborations. A trained archivist or historian, aware of the potential research value of these materials, should be consulted before any papers or records 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
  • Grant proposals and reports
  • 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 that 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 most of the above materials and:

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

Email and other electronic records present unresolved challenges for long-term preservation, but they can be very important sources of information. Many archives are able to accept and save them for the interim until longer-term solutions are developed. Check with your institution's archives to learn their policies on accessioning electronic records.

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 and Archives.

Scientific apparatus is beyond the scope of the AIP History Programs, but unique apparatus which helped achieve a major advance should be saved whenever possible.

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 done.

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.

If the home institution is unable to preserve the papers and records, there are other repositories, including the Library of Congress, the American Philosophical Society, and regional historical societies, that may be willing to take them. The AIP History Programs' archival collecting is normally restricted to photographs, oral history interviews, and records of AIP and its Member Societies, although it may occasionally accept other archival materials as a repository of last resort.

Contact us for advice on locations of appropriate repositories or related questions. 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.

Don't worry if the papers are messy or disorganized. It is best to leave the sorting of documents to archivists. 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 archives, please let us know. We will add descriptions to AIP's International Catalog of Sources for History of the Physical Sciences, which is an online clearinghouse of information of archival collections in physics and allied sciences.

When to save?

The best time to arrange preservation is now, while papers are still intact in the owner's hands. Many scientists make arrangements with a repository before they reach retirement age, and archives are usually happy to take in files as they become inactive. However, if papers are not preserved 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.

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. Archives are not allowed to give tax advice or appraise the monetary value of donations, although they may be able to provide lists of appraisers. 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. Donors who can provide financial support are encouraged to do so.

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