The archives of science and technology document some of humankind’s greatest achievements and adventures. Scientific discoveries have revealed to us the layout of the universe, the chemistry of life and the equations of nature. Technological advances have allowed us to observe the inner workings of cells, create increasingly powerful computers, dig tunnels under the sea and build bridges spanning continents.
What is more, science and technology rely on the continual critical appraisal of past discoveries and experiments. Discoveries or inventions are all part of a longer story of exploration or innovation. Or, as Isaac Newton put it, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
The continued and reliable access to scientific records is therefore essential to keep on building on the work of previous generations of scientists. Yet, it seems that scientific records are not as systematically managed or archived by professional recordkeepers as records in other areas of human creation and endeavor. Instead, the care and custody of such records has tended to remain unclearly defined, and scientists, engineers, their institutions and archivists have not always provided viable solutions to ensure their coherent capture and archiving.
How can this be addressed?
In order to effectively capture contemporary scientific and technological records during or soon after their creation, and preserve them as archives for all, archivists need to collaborate with scientists and ensure that they have a place within scientific institutions.
To bring together different ideas and perspectives about how this might be done, 2017 saw the founding of a new committee within the ICA-SUV. The Committee on the Contemporary Archives of Science and Technology (C-CAST) thus seeks to explore ways in which archivists can better support recordkeeping in science and technology, and in so doing help preserve and share this valuable human heritage.
The primary activity of C-CAST will be to organize workshops on scientific archives which bring together different actors involved in the creation, capture or preservation of such records. This could be scientists, archivists or data curators, to cite a few, each of whom have different professional backgrounds and sometimes divergent understandings of what should be archived and why. By addressing these differences, perhaps we can together find common tools and languages to better capture these fascinating records, without getting in the way of the fundamental carrying out of scientific and technological work. In essence, by enabling a general conversation about scientific and technological archives, and bringing together different experiences and perspectives, C-CAST hopes to develop guidelines that can help ensure these records are persevered and accessible.
The founding members of C-CAST represent different fields of the hard sciences – life sciences, physics, chemistry – as well as engineering and biotechnology. They furthermore currently span two continents and are located in 4 countries, each of which have their own structures and archival traditions.
The next workshop will take place in Washington, D.C. on 13-14 August. More information and a registration link is available here: www.embl.org/archive/workshop
C-CAST founding members:
Bethany Anderson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (USA)
Anne-Flore Laloë, European Molecular Biology Laboratory (Germany)
Brigitte van Tiggelen, Science History Institute, Europe Office (France)
Melanie Mueller, American Institute of Physics (USA)
Jonathan Pledge, British Library (UK)
By: Anne-Flore Laloë, Archivist, European Molecular Biology Laboratory