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Tim Powell

Report. Future Proof I, (2003)

This international conference brought together archivists from 16 countries in Europe, Australia and North and South America.

The conference was introduced by the co-organisers, Arnott Wilson for the University of Edinburgh Library and Peter Harper, Director of the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists and President of the IUHPS Commission on Bibliography and Documentation.  The conference pursued a number of strands in contemporary scientific archives.

The first strand was preserving scientific archives.  There were contributions from a range of institutions, including an essentially traditional repository with large paper and photographic holdings (Felicity Pors of the Niels Bohr Archive, Copenhagen), a university repository responding innovatively to the legal record-keeping requirements of the State (Renata Arovelius, Swedish Agricultural Sciences University, Uppsala), and research centres attuned to the working and record keeping practices of scientists today.  Here the conference heard about contrasting experiences of the archivists of two high energy physics programmes, Anita Hollier of CERN in Geneva and Jean Deken of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California.  National perspectives were introduced by Godelieve Bolten (The Netherlands), Hanna Krajewska (Poland), Alfredo Tolmasquim (Brazil) and Xavier Roque (Catalonia and Spain).

This strand concluded with consideration of discipline-based perspectives.  Marie-Dominique Mouton of the University of Paris and Odile Welfelé of the Mission du Patrimoine Ethnologique, Paris, gave a anthropological and ethnographical perspectives, while Jane Turner spoke on the challenges of documenting environmental science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.  The session concluded with Julia Sheppard of the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London, giving the conference the latest news on the purchase and sale of molecular biology archives by an American private collector.  During this part of the conference speakers considered the emerging hybrid environment of paper and electronic records and the need to respect traditional archive work while responding to the e-environment.  A recurring theme was the varying importance attached to the preservation of raw data in different disciplines.

The second conference strand looked at developments in electronic access to information about archives.  As well as looking at developments related to the important collaborative networking projects in the UK (Tim Powell, Alan Borthwick and Arnott Wilson), the conference heard about projects in Germany (Wilhelm Fuessl, Deutsches Museum, Munich), Italy (Giovanni Paolini, University of Rome) and Spain (Juana Molina Nortes, Museo Nacional de Liengas Naturales, Madrid, Spain).

The third major strand was understanding scientific archives.  There were impressive presentations from Joseph Anderson of the American Institute of Physics’ Center for History of Physics on the Center’s pioneering documentation research projects that had provided blueprints for documenting science archives worldwide, and Gavan McCarthy of the Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, Melbourne, on his current involvement with the International Atomic Energy Authority on the development of strategies for the long-term preservation and transfer of information relating to radioactive waste disposal.  Patrick van den Nieuwenhof (Free University of Brussels, Belgium) gave a fascinating talk on post-modern techniques in science archives, introducing participants to a new term, ‘archivitalization’. The meeting concluded with a contribution from Anne Barrett of Imperial College on how archival material could illuminate the place of women in science at the College, which was not evident in the published record.

The meeting was superbly organised and run. As always, at least as valuable and enjoyable as the varied formal presentations were the opportunities to meet colleagues from so many different countries with such varied archival backgrounds, to discuss and compare projects and consider future activities.  Participants were keen to have the chance to meet again and further ways of building on the international contacts already in place, as exemplified for Europe by the CASE Group, were discussed.  The conference was also a fitting occasion to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists and a number of the institutions represented paid tribute to the contribution the Unit and its Director had made to encouraging their own projects and fostering good practice internationally.