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Menno Polak

The Other Side of the Fence, or the Concept of Academic Heritage

I would like to thank the organisers first of all for having me, since the talk I intend to give will go rather beyond the scope of science archives proper. But they may have been misled by the title that I gave and that was in hindsight rather vague: The other side of the fence. What is on the other side of the fence? The neighbours are, obviously. And, let’s be honest, we all want to know: what are the neighbours up to? In this case it refers to other professionals in the same or neighbouring fields: librarians, special collections librarians, university archivists, university museum curators etc. I would like to look at this larger picture that might be covered by the concept of academic heritage.

All this is based on an article that will, before long, be published in a Polish museum journal, the Opuscula musealia. Zeszyty naukowe Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego (Cracow). By the way, I don’t represent the University of Amsterdam or the university library or any other Dutch institution. There is absolutely no ‘Dutch’ consensus on the subject that I intend to treat. The only one who I can confidently assume to agree with what I’m about to say is the co-author of the article, who happens to be my wife as well.

What is academic heritage? Google provides us with about 6700 hits. But what it means is not immediately clear. I don’t claim to have carefully looked into all these hits. But I think the concept is used in two very different ways. In most cases academic heritage refers to something abstract, something to characterise a university or a college. Heritage would seem to be synonymous with tradition or identity.

But the concept is also used in a very different way and I believe the source then is always, directly or indirectly, Dutch. It’s one of our more curious export products. Academic heritage, in the Dutch sense, refers to very concrete things, to objects and collections, held by academic institutions. I suppose the synonym here is inheritance or legacy rather than tradition.

Please allow me to stress one thing ahead of all the others. You may think I’m provocative in the rest of my talk (I don’t mind, I like to be), but do not please think I’m chauvinistic. I don’t take pride in the fact that this may be a Dutch concept. Whether the concept is useful or not remains to be seen, but I hope to show that there is nothing to be proud of here.

The concept is a relatively new one. It dates from the 1990s. Let me digress for a moment. The term heritage itself (‘erfgoed’ in Dutch) made a remarkable recovery. It had been out of use for about 50 years. It was very vaguely associated pre-WWII nationalist ideas that had gone thoroughly out of fashion. But all of a sudden ‘erfgoed’ became something of a buzz word. It has become a very political (and politically correct) term. For reasons of time (not to mention my own blood pressure), I won’t go into this further, except to say that introducing ‘academic heritage’, adding the ‘academic’ to ‘heritage’ probably had its use in political terms. It came into use for defensive, political reasons. Basicly, it referred to university collections and they were in bad shape: there was no funding, they were not taken care of properly. Those concerned with university collections as it were jumped on the ‘erfgoed’ bandwagon.

 ‘Academic heritage’ was probably first used in connection with geological collections. In the 1980s the Department of Geology of the University of Amsterdam was closed down. This was a part of a wider redistribution among universities of departments that attracted too few students. But this department possessed a large geological collection, rocks and samples of rocks. What to do with this collection when geology was no longer taught at our university? After much heated debate, in the end, a critical evaluation of the collection was done, and the collection was distributed among a number institutions. Parts went to the Natural History Museum in Leiden, some were turned over to the Geological Service of Indonesia (these rocks simply went back to where they came from in the first place) and part of the collection was dumped: student collections, collections with no clear provenance etc.

The problem of this geological collection however pointed to a broader issue. Building collections was once an essential part of academic practice. There are all sorts of stories about professors who at one time were appointed to university chairs because in this way their private collections would become available for use by students. But the importance of collections has dwindled dramatically.

Certainly for research, a university doesn’t need to hold extensive collections of objects. First of all, cheap and easy travel enables researchers to go to other universities or museums in order to study the material, rather than collecting their own samples. Of course with digitization the researcher doesn’t even need to travel at all. At least potentially, he can stay at home and find the objects on the internet, or at least select the item he really needs to see.

But scientific methods have changed as well. Modern science deals with data rather than with objects. And when objects are used, modern methods require much less material than used to be the case. Let me put it this way: studying a whole elephant is very interesting, but you only need a tiny fragment of an elephant to extract its DNA. Finally, inherited collections reflect the scientific interests of the past, which are not necessarily the prevalent issues of research today. To put it crudely: at some point biologists were no longer interested in specific plant or animal species, or elephants, but devoted themselves to the molecular level. The question was not any longer: ‘how does this animal work’, but the question was ‘how does life work’.

 So, can we simply do away with these collections? Of course not, they still have a role in teaching and research, even though they are now primarily relevant to the history of science. The collections are part of the record of science. Or put more exactly: they are one part of the record of science; one part among a number of others.

This ‘record of science’ is in a sense an alternative concept for academic heritage, but doesn’t quite cover it, as I hope to make clear. ‘Record of science’ has another drawback compaired to academic heritage: it translates badly into Dutch. But I realize that is no concern of yours.

Some collections or objects in collections have been studied and described in the scholarly literature. As such they represent the physical evidence of accumulated knowledge. They are validated by research and are therefore a part of the academic record, the record of science. As a result these objects or collections have a role as ‘reference collections’, in the sense that they may be referred to, litterally, in new research.

As interest in university collections developed in The Netherlands in the 1990s, very soon university libraries became involved as well. But with good reason: their collections of old books and manuscripts in special collections departments, are not that  different from the collections of botanists, zoologists, geologists, astronomers etc. They are written or printed documents rather than objects, but the main distinction is that they belong to the scholarly record of a different discipline, mainly the humanities.

The ‘true’ record of science, of course, is laid down in publications. Over time, university libraries have acquired enormous numbers of books and journals. They did so because, at the time of their acquisition, these texts represented the current knowledge in a particular discipline. Libraries still acquire books, journals and, more and more often, information on digital carriers, but the current state of affairs in all academic disciplines is obviously subject to change. As science progresses and knowledge grows, the older literature becomes obsolete as a source of current knowledge.

The fact that university libraries have collected this material over decades, and in the case of the older universities over several centuries, implies that they hold a huge amount of printed material that is no longer relevant for current research. Their value derives from their role as sources for the history of science. This value is not just ‘academic’, in the sense of irrelevant to the real world, because ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, as they say, means that current knowledge has its basis in earlier research. The works of these giants may still become crucially important as research continues, not only because of their contributions, but possibly also because of their flaws. Just a minute ago I mentioned the shift of emphasis in biology, from the living organism to the molecular level, but interest may shift backwards: with the growing concern for biodiversity the question ‘how does this or that animal work’ may be as relevant as ‘how does life work’. Besides, the growth of scientific and technological knowledge is such an essential part of our civilisation, that it would really be strange to disregard its history.

It’s interesting to note that, among collections, books have always had a privileged position. Access to the literature through catalogues, in large measure internationally standardised, has been unsurpassed for a long time and this is no doubt an enormous achievement. Beyond that, we have all grown used very quickly to the fact that almost all these catalogues are now universally accessible through the internet.

Let’s turn away from the collections of objects, natural or artificial, of books and manuscripts, to what we are more familiar with: archival material. Universities produce records or archives in the formal, limited, sense of the word: the papers (and digital files) that reflect the activities of the university administration. They mainly deal with administrative and organisational matters, but their preservation is equally crucial for the history of academic work. After all, academic work is never done in a void; institutional arrangements have always been important. Which chairs were created and who was appointed to a chair in any field? This has always been subject to ‘academic politics’, if you like.

Over time, the institutional environment has only grown in importance, as the scale at which research is done increases and the level of required funding rises. What research is given priority, how is it funded, what cooperation is sought? Institutional university archives will often bridge the gap between the history of the university itself and the history of various academic disciplines.

I hardly need to go into scientists’ papers here. Clearly, they come in all shapes and sizes; whether they are considered private papers or institutional archival material gone astray, depends very much on national traditions and legislation. The material there may range from purely private to administrative. Including of course research material that no doubt has a relation to the record of science. In my view, but we have established before that not everyone agrees, sets of research data, whether on paper from older research or recent digital born material, are an important part of the record of science. This has been dealt with at considerable length in Munich and Strasbourg, so we shall skip this part. Except for this: there is a lot of activity in this area, even if it is often outside our field of vision. But it is data managers who deal with it, instead of archivists, museum curators or librarians. In other words: a new neighbour has moved into our neighbourhood. The very least we can do – but this true for new and old neighbours alike – is to get acquainted. Ignoring them only leads to ignorance.

Let’s turn finally to university museums. They are a very heterogeneous lot. For all the differences among them, the role of a university museum is very often not limited to the sphere of the record of science. In many cases they hold important collections of the kind described before; but often they are explicitly involved in the university’s public relations. They will be concerned with the history of the parent institution and with the role of the university in its home town, or with the history of academia in a broad sense, including local university traditions and, if I may be so disrespectful, the local lore. This is often reflected in their holdings of collections of photographs, painted portraits of professors, gowns, insignia and other paraphernalia, and a variety of material concerning student organisations.

The museums interest may well overlap with the record of science, insofar as representatives of the university may have made significant or even outstanding contributions to science. One or several disciplines may be iconic for the history of the university and for that reason play an important role in what the museum wants to show in its role as the showcase for the university. In The Netherlands, to give just one example, veterinary medicine has always been taught exclusively in Utrecht. In the University Museum there the history of veterinary medicine is bound to be important, not only because of their collections regarding this discipline, but equally so because of its public relations value for the university.

In conclusion, academic heritage is a fruitful concept insofar as it points to the comprehensive nature of the very different types of material we must deal with. Collections of objects and instruments, books, documents, data etc. all belong to the sphere of the record of science, and are closely linked to the history of universities.

Specialisation among archivists, librarians, museum curators, data managers, and others, has its obvious uses. But we should not forget that this specialisation is based on the nature of the documents or objects concerned. I don’t want to argue that this professional knowledge is unimportant, but we tend to forget how much these specialists have in common. A functional analysis of the material would probably point at what is common to all. What should be paramount is not the nature of the materials we preserve, but their use and the way we present them. A functional analysis would focus on issues such as preservation, storage, selection, showcasing, access – digital or otherwise – etc. These tasks depend in varying degrees on these traditional specialisations. Whatever term we use, academic heritage or any other, a greater awareness of the common purpose of everyone active in the field could be very useful.

It would seem to be unproductive to spend a lot of effort on organising or reorganising the management of academic heritage material. Three universities in The Netherlands, those of Amsterdam, Leiden and Utrecht, all public universities, all covered by the same laws, all within a radius of 40 kilometres, have adopted three completely different models for the management of their academic heritage. History, local tradition or possibly coincidence may have influenced this outcome. The same will be true elsewhere, I expect. What is crucial in my view is not the possession or the whereabouts of collections, but the fact that they are accessible and available.

No doubt, we should try to prevent the unintended loss of material through sheer neglect or lack of funds. But beyond that we should apply ourselves to stimulating the integrated digital access to all parts of academic heritage. A prerequisite for this is the acceptance and use of common standards, for instance a standard for the creation of metadata describing collections and their constituent parts. In this way integrated search and retrieval of material of all kinds and all provenances could be provided, as opposed to a set of links to a large number of separate websites, each with their own underlying structures and software.

How about the situation in the Netherlands these days? As I said, three universities have adopted completely different models to manage their academic heritage. We all speak a lot about academic heritage, but there is no consensus about what is and what isn’t covered by it. In other words: everyone stays on his own side of the fence. Maybe it would be more accurate to say, everyone sits in his own trench taking aim at everyone else. But, on the positive side, shooting is after all a form of contact, and may be the beginning of something more promising in the future.