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August 1998
Happened Here
NCAR archivist Diane Rabson sheds light on our institutional history in this bimonthly series.

Between an attic and a hard place

I never had to wonder what my father did all day. His job was easy to understand. In the 1950s, he worked as an optometrist in the Medical Department at Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York. I knew that he examined people's eyes and prescribed glasses, sometimes very specialized prescriptions depending on the industrial division they worked in. At dinnertime, he would regale us with stories of the "interesting eyes" he had encountered that day.

Nowadays, when I talk to my own family at dinnertime about my job, I can tell they're still wondering what I do all day. An answer like, "I preserve the institutional history of NCAR and UCAR," hardly illuminates the matter.

A friend recently quipped, "I think an archives is halfway between an attic and a hard place." ("Archives" can be either a singular or a collective noun.) Attics, of course, connote the idea of stuff put away and forgotten, like the Velveteen Rabbit or the Lost Ark that Indiana Jones sought. But archives are not warehouses for "forgotten stuff." Rather, materials are evaluated for their potential historic significance, and the selected material (usually paper documents or "records"--the more formal designation) generally is arranged and preserved by filing in acid-free folders and boxes. Archivists write descriptions of the contents of the boxes, either as brief summaries or as longer inventories. Many institutions' archives provide public access to their collections through these descriptions, available in paper format or through computerized catalogs.

In Western civilization, not surprisingly, archives have existed since antiquity, mainly to preserve incoming correspondence, such as it was. In medieval Europe, an archives might preserve sacred relics and correspondence as well as a king's treasury. It wasn't until the French Revolution that archives took on a more modern character. A centralized Archives Nationales was created in Paris in 1794; the new government began actively preserving historic documentation and, for the first time, legally opened the archives to the public, providing a civic model for other countries, including the United States. (Our National Archives was founded in 1934, rather on the late side.)

The NCAR/UCAR Archives has a bit of history as well. The half-time archivist position began in 1984, in part to assist in planning for UCAR's extensive 25th-anniversary celebration in 1985. Many of the original scientific staff were beginning to look toward retirement in those years, and there was concern about losing the institutional memory. In the broader sphere, the explosive growth of postwar U.S. science and technology, in both the private and public sectors, was woefully undocumented until various archival programs were established in the '70s and '80s (notably at U.S. Department of Energy laboratories, such as Sandia.)

Currently, our archives holds more than 50 discrete collections; most document the workings of various divisions and sections. We have recently begun to solicit the papers of individuals, mainly scientists who have spent a significant portion of their careers at NCAR. The story of the Phil Thompson collection, which the archives acquired in 1994 shortly after Phil's death, provides an excellent example of the complexities of processing--or preparing--an archival collection for public research. (It also shows just what archivists do all day.)

Philip Duncan Thompson was NCAR's first associate director, responding to Walt Roberts's invitation in 1960 to help build the intellectual base and staff for the new national center. Prior to that, Phil was a career Air Force officer who had distinguished himself in pioneering numerical weather prediction research and projects. Phil kept most of his records intact, starting about 1944, and moved them from office to office as necessary. After packing the documents from his last office, in the Climate and Global Dynamics Division, the archives ended up with 43 archives boxes--containing approximately 10,000 sheets of paper.

The first step was to look through the entire collection, item by item. This took several months, part time, as more pressing tasks allowed; mostly we looked for duplicate records and for badly deteriorated paper that needed to be photocopied, and gained a general sense of how things were organized. We also created a brief inventory, box by box, that highlighted the types of records within (letters, publications, data, etc.), their subject matter, and their date range(s). While some boxes contained records in good chronological order, many others contained a jumble of documents out of sequence, reflecting the many office moves.

One of the principles that archivists live by is to retain the original order of records, as much as possible, in order to preserve the context in which the records were created. At the same time, some rearrangement of records is necessary to make them useful to researchers. The next phase of processing should take an additional several months--again, amid other tasks. Keeping original order in mind, we plan to organize the Thompson records into categories such as correspondence, biographical information, travel, data, and writings. All paper is to be refiled in archival folders; rusty staples, paper clips, old cellophane tape, and rubber bands will be replaced by stainless steel clips and rustfree staples. In addition, we hope to prepare an exhaustive inventory (or "finding aid") that will be published on the archives' Web site in XML (the Web's "next" markup language). The inventory will provide a detailed guide to the contents of this highly significant collection.

If you have questions about the NCAR/UCAR Archives, or have an interest in donating something, please contact us (ext. 8508, rabson@ucar.edu). •Diane Rabson

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu

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