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Site Unseen

Memories Are Made of This: The NCAR Archives

In the series Site Unseen, Staff Notes takes you to out-of-the- way corners where the gears of our institution turn.

If you're the type of person who cleans house by throwing everything into the recycling bin or the trash, the following might give you nightmares. If you're the type who saves 1977 phone bills and your great-aunt Sophie's divinity recipe, read on.

Photo of archivists
Diane Rabson and Geoff Cheeseman amid archives. (Photo by Bob Bumpas).

"We are the institutional memory for NCAR and UCAR," says Diane Rabson, who spends 20 hours each week in the Foothills Lab as NCAR's official archivist. Geoff Cheeseman puts in 10 hours a week as Diane's assistant. Together, the two inhabit a space on the west side of FL1's high-ceilinged first floor, with a small office and a much larger storage area. The Machine Shop is their next-door neighbor, and the archives themselves are rather utilitarian in appearance. Picture 2,000 boxes piled onto two levels of metal-mesh flooring (sensible shoes are a must). Admits Diane, "The archives have never really been much to look at."

Although Walt Roberts, Phil Thompson, and other early leaders of NCAR were scrupulous about saving material, the formal archives weren't born until 1984 with preparation for NCAR's 25th anniversary. Nancy Gauss was hired as archivist, and the collection was housed in a building at 55th and Arapahoe that also housed UCAR Finance and Administration for many years. Nancy left in 1988 and Diane came on board soon afterward, moving with the Archives to FL1 in 1992.

This native of Rochester, New York, comes from what she calls "a pretty motley past." Her bachelor's in English literature was followed by three years of photography study at Metropolitan State College in Denver and a stint as curator for the Colorado Historical Society. In the midst of this, Diane took two years to work as a locomotive fireperson (essentially an apprentice engineer) on the Rio Grande Railroad near Pueblo and Minturn. "I spent a lot of time working in waist-deep snow and fifty-below weather on top of Tennessee Pass."

The core of Diane's job is the intake, assessment, and storage of records, images, and data from NCAR scientists and administrators as they move on to other offices or positions or retire. She's passionate about the importance of her task. "NCAR exists in the medium of the explosion of science and technology that occurred after World War II. Unless we can achieve a scholarly, accurate understanding of how this has evolved, we will be in poor shape to plan our future."

As items come into the archives, Diane transfers them to acid-free boxes and folders, using rust-free staples and plastic paper clips to avoid the quiet ravages of oxidation. Old chemical-based copies such as mimeographs must be replaced by photocopies on acid-free paper. One might think that the computer era will make Diane's job easier: an on- line archive doesn't rust. In reality, she says, "I'm excited on the one hand and terrified on the other hand." She likes being able to "send an entire 120-page manuscript to somebody over e-mail," but worries about the amount of correspondence sent through that evanescent medium.

"It's a big issue for archivists nationwide. There are questions about when and where you ask people to preserve e-mail and what you are trying to capture beyond the message itself. It's a new and very troubling frontier."

Coming in to help staff unload their aged materials has its lighter side, says Diane. "I've noticed that NCAR scientists tend to oversave rather than undersave. I got to clean one scientist's office not long ago," she recalls with a smile. "He had telephone messages from the 1970s buried on his desk. I recommended he not be given any more horizontal surfaces."

Diane's other major task is two oral history projects. The American Meteorological Society's Tape-Recorded Interview Project (TRIP) now includes 55 interviews with eminent atmospheric scientists, five of them from NCAR and most of them available in transcribed form. Six or seven interviews are added per year, each one carried out by a scientific peer of the subject. For instance, NCAR's Richard Rotunno interviewed the University of Chicago's Ted Fujita. The transcriptions are called upon for background by such entities as the Smithsonian Institution, Weatherwise magazine, and the American Institute of Physics.

Along with TRIP, the NCAR/UCAR Oral History Project interviews "scientists, administrators, and others who have something to contribute about NCAR's history." About 40 staff have been interviewed to date, with several added each year. Diane welcomes inquiries from potential subjects and interviewers.

If you're hankering to unload any records of note, give Diane a call at ext. 8508, rabson@ucar.edu. Contributions to the archives are always welcome, and the staff can provide overall help in clearing out your space. As for the phone bills and the divinity recipes, you're on your own. --BH


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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Last revised: Wed Mar 29 12:32:53 MST 2000