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The Collections > Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

What do we consider to be a scientific archive? A scientific archive consists of the documentation generated or received by a scientist or institution in the carrying out of their professional activity, something that does not exclude personal documents. This documentation may have already been deposited in an archive as a collection, and may or may not already have a description; or it may be in its original location (an office, laboratory or company) as a potential collection. The term “scientific” is used in a broad sense: it mainly includes the disciplines that currently belong to the faculties of science and biosciences, technology and medicine, but it also applies to relevant collections in the human and social sciences.

Which documents or objects make up a scientific archive? A scientific archive is made up of documents and objects related to the creation, development, teaching and popularisation of science.  The material is very diverse, so collections may be made up of textual items such as correspondence, laboratory notebooks, diaries, draft publications, handwritten notes, reports and administrative documents; or graphic documents such as photographs (of laboratories, colleagues, partners or scientific instruments, etc.) and audiovisual archives offering a rare and valuable testimony to scientific practice.

How can the documents in scientific archives be classified and grouped? When organising the documents from a personal collection, it might be useful to distinguish three parallel paths in modern scientific careers: personal, professional and public. The documents corresponding to the personal field are related to education and scientific training; the positions and posts held; membership of committees, scientific societies, academies, and so on; and personal and family correspondence. Documents in the professional category include reference to research and teaching activities. Among them are materials related to the writing and publication of reports, books and papers, including annotated offprints, drafts, publication contracts, peer commentaries or references, etc.; the research activity: books or laboratory notebooks, diaries, drawings, models; teaching activity: course notes, classes given; and research management: project management documents, management of units or departments, committee actions or working groups. Finally, it should be taken into account that modern scientific careers are carried out within a broad framework ranging from international organisations to the media. The documents relating to these activities enable us to establish the scientists place in society and bear witness to the public dimension of science. Sometimes, the distinction between this and other categories is not completely clear, but in any case it includes documents related to membership of committees, advisory boards, commissions, etc.; the tasks carried out within international organisations, non-governmental organisations, etc; industrial consulting or advice on R+D projects; political activity; and appearances in the media.

What is the importance of this kind of archive? Scientific archives are invaluable for the work of today’s historians of science and also for those of the future, because they document the least visible and least well-known part of scientific activity. For example, we are not talking only about the end results of research, but seeking to identify useful materials for the reconstruction of the process that led to those results. Science archives also contain valuable information about the past and the traditions of the institutions themselves, and reveal facts about the socio-cultural, political and economic contexts in which scientific activity is promoted and takes place.

What is the legal situation of the science archives in Catalonia and Spain? In Catalonia the Archives Law (LAW 10/2001, of 13 July on archives and documents, DOGC Nº 3437.24.7.0. p. 11538) defines as private documents of a historical nature “those of less than [100 years] old produced or collected by physical or juridical persons in private law who have made an outstanding contribution in any sphere of activity and whose personality or field of activity may be of interest for further study...” (article 12); the owners or holders of these archives have, among other things, the responsibility to “conserve them and keep them in order with an inventory”, “full conservation of their state of organisation” and “allow scholars, following a petition to the Department of Culture, to consult those documents that are not classified as restricted” (article 15). The science archives are especially vulnerable because the Spanish intellectual property laws adjudicate the documents to individual scientists and not to the academic centres or research centres where they work. This means that each individual can take the documents with them on leaving an institution, or may be reclaimed by the family on their death, making it easier for them to become dispersed and eventually lost. The SAC strives precisely to avoid this dispersion and loss.

Where can I find more information? There is not much literature on contemporary science archives. The information that we have included is based on materials published by science archives units in other countries, such as the guide to Preserving Scientific Source Materials, published by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists (Great Britain), and the triptych Conserver le patrimoine scientifique, published by the Centre de Recherche en Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques, Cité des Sciences et de l´Industrie, Paris. One of the reference works was published by the Direction des Archives de France: Les archives personnelles des scientifiques. Classement et conservation (Paris: National Archives, 1995). The International Union of History and Philosophy of Science, Division of the History of Science has also published a collection of works about contemporary science archives: Home, R. W.; Harper, Peter; Welfelé, Odile, eds. Archives of Contemporary Science (Liège: International Union of History and Philosophy of Science, Division of the History of Science, 1998).