Saving the Records of Big Science: Clashes between Librarians and Government Officials Jeopardize Access to Research Materials

Article excerpt

ROBIN E. RIDER

The author is head of the History of Science and Technology Program at UC/Berkeley's Bancroft Library.

Clashes between librarians and government officials jeopardize access to research materials.

The tab for Big Science-the major research projects that characterize much of 20th-century scientific effort-has been high, and the paper trail it leaves behind is a complicated one. A recent study of the Faustian bargain struck between the national security establishment and American university science, for example, drew on unpublished materials preserved in presidential libraries, university archives, corporate files, and the personal papers of individual scientists, as well as a bewildering array of records at the National Archives. These records show how fiscal, geopolitical, social, and moral considerations enter into scientific research and its use, whether the subject is a human gene, the spotted owl, or nuclear weaponry.

A recent dispute between the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) on one side and the University of California (UC) on the other has focused attention on the question of what sources-published and unpublished-researchers will be able to consult when writing the history of 20th-century science, and who will have responsibility for collecting and preserving these sources. It is only by access to these materials that scholars and citizens will be able to appreciate the achievements of individual scientists and engineers and to understand the larger context-laboratory, academic department, university, discipline, scientific community, nation-in which they function.

The controversy reported in the July/ Aug. 1990 American Libraries (p. 627) is over the proper home for unpublished papers of university faculty members who have had federal (especially DOE) funding for their scientific research projects. These faculty papers include correspondence; research notes and data; journals and diaries; drafts of articles and books; unpublished writings, including lectures and talks; course notes; records of university, professional, and consulting activities; grant proposals and progress reports; photographs and designs for laboratories and their equipment; and audio- and videotapes. These valuable materials also record the development, policies, and functioning of campus departments and laboratories, thereby documenting the fife of the university and the life of science.

Such materials have long been collected at Bancroft Library, the special collections library on the University of California's Berkeley campus. Since 1973 professional historians of science in Bancroft's History of Science and Technology Program, in cooperation with campus science faculty, other historians of science, and university archives and disciplinary history centers elsewhere, have worked to expand the documentary base for studies of 20th-century science and technology. The program has emphasized the papers of individuals and organizations in the Bay Area, especially those linked with the University of California.

The papers of Nobel laureate Ernest O. Lawrence, for example, receive heavy use at Bancroft Library. Lawrence founded the UC Radiation Laboratory in 1931 and later played an important role in the Manhattan Project; the laboratory, renamed Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL) after Lawrences death, is now operated by UC with funding from DOE. Lawrence's papers came to Bancroft Library from several sources, including Lawrence's widow and LBL. When scholars use the Lawrence Papers, they often find that the research trail leads to other materials at Bancroft Library: correspondence and papers of other campus Nobel laureates and of a longtime chairman of the physics department; the UC President's Papers, in which the growth of campus science departments and laboratories can be traced; and long oral histories, most undertaken with outside funding and rich in personal detail. …