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Arnott Wilson, University Archivist, Edinburgh University Library

"A NAHSTE Experience: Edinburgh's History of Science, Technology and the Environment Project"

If you’re on your first visit to Edinburgh before long you’ll soon discover Edinburgh Castle.  Whilst the castle will provide you with a very pleasant tourist experience, I’m about to give you a NAHSTE experience - an overview of the project led by Edinburgh and which ran from January 2000 to October last year.  NAHSTE, or Navigational Aids for the History of Science, Technology and the Environment was supported by RSLP, the Research Support Libraries Programme, funded jointly by the UK’s four Higher Education funding councils.  I’ll begin by saying a little about that programme generally followed by a brief mention of the other science archives projects it supported.  I’ll then concentrate on NAHSTE itself.

The RSLP was launched to facilitate arrangements for research support in UK libraries, by sustaining and enhancing access to research resources in both traditional and new ways, extending collaborative arrangements for collection management, increasing availability of information about the location of the UK’s rich information resources and improving the ability to navigate around important collections - so you see why we used the word navigational in the title of the NAHSTE project.  History of Science was one of the subject areas highlighted by RSLP as having significant user demand for development, so with the extensive collections held at Edinburgh, we naturally thought we could lead a good history of science project. Our original proposal was approved in August 1999.

NAHSTE aims and objectives, NAHSTE had four overall aims:

1. to provide standardised descriptions of archives and manuscripts, relevant to the history of science, technology and the environment, held by the three partner Higher Education Institutions, and to cross link these to related Scottish scientific historical materials held by the non-HEI collaborators

2. to make the descriptions and other navigational aids fully accessible on the World Wide Web

3. to stimulate increased research using these unique and significant history of science resources

4. to conserve the targeted collections

The major elements of the project were therefore:

· A cataloguing project

· Dissemination of NAHSTE

· IT Development and Delivery

· Conservation

· Evaluation

· Collaboration

Essentially NAHSTE is a cataloguing project, or more properly, an archival description project.  In the initial stages we also proposed to include relevant printed scientific journals, but it was later decided to concentrate on manuscripts and archives.

The RSLP were very keen on publicising what their projects produced, so there was a significant dissemination effort going on throughout the project - electronic mailing lists, articles in newsletters, leaflets, presentations - we did a few of our own as well as taking part in various joint demonstrations and other events.  Dissemination still continues to some extent even though the project is now officially finished.  The main target is the UK higher education researcher, in line with RSLP’s own emphasis, but the resources are clearly of benefit to e.g. secondary schools use or even just general interest.

IT Development was by far the most challenging aspect of the entire project and at the outset, we only had a vague notion of how, technically, we would complete the final delivery. We thought naively we could recruit our own IT developer - a tame technical expert for the project who would work directly with archivists to produce the desired outcomes.  That plan failed but we were extremely fortunate in being able to recruit professional archivists with enough technical expertise to develop the methodologies, procedures and specifications needed, as well as actually writing the descriptions themselves.  Armed with this we were then able to work in partnership with EDINA, Edinburgh Data and Information Access based in the University’s computing service by paying for one of their technical experts to produce the final result:

Conservation formed another main strand recognised by RSLP.  A part-time conservator was employed to carry out in-house work and oversee specialist re-binding.

Evaluation: RSLP were very keen that the entire programme should be user driven, so we established an Academic User Group, known as the AUG, whose ten members were representative of the main subject themes and time periods covered and who commented on the effectiveness or otherwise of the project and its outcomes at various times throughout its life, advising on things like research trends, choice of collections, relevance of our approach, the look and feel of the web facilities, and also making valuable individual contributions.  The on-line essay on the site which links to specific collection descriptions, reveals some of the underlying project themes such as the connections between the universities and the continually adapting scientific curriculum, was written by one of the AUG members.   Apart from the ongoing evaluation carried out by the AUG we also paid for an evaluation at the end of the project by an external consultant.

One of the most important aspects of the project was its collaborative nature, again something that was actively encouraged by RSLP.  There was a great deal of fruitful collaboration on the IT front and also through the AUG but NAHSTE was not just about material held at Edinburgh University.


NAHSTE focussed on particular history of science collections held not only at Edinburgh but also those held by the two other main partners, Glasgow and Heriot-Watt universities.

Both the other main partners’ collection strengths complimented the main themes very well.

As well as combining well on the collections front we also helped each other in other ways such as project management issues, staffing and budget matters and especially on the IT development front.  We drew heavily on the knowledge and skills of Glasgow in the early stages, particularly in how to apply EAD document type definitions, and effectively NAHSTE became a sister project for Glasgow’s RSLP project, the Gateway to the Archives of Scottish Higher Education or GASHE.  We also used the same IT delivery experts especially as RSLP were keen to see such synergies and economies of scale. 

Whilst it would have been good to include some of the other Scottish Universities such as St. Andrews and Aberdeen in the project, with the benefit of hindsight, three main partners was the ideal number.

As well as the full University partners we had 4 associate partners, all Edinburgh based, two large national repositories and two smaller ones known to have relevant material.  The idea behind having associate partners had two main drivers:

1. RSLP were very keen to have cross-sectoral involvement

2. We thought it would be useful to our users if we could build up what we called ‘informed links’ to data held by these other institutions that connected directly with our own collections.  So, as well as being able to find information on say Joseph Black in the three institutions, the website would also at least give a brief summary of what is held on Black at the NAS.

In practice we didn’t really have enough time for this aspect of the project and in any case the increasing ability to cross search differing institutions’ on-line catalogues will make our informed links work superfluous before very  long.

Some of the major collections included in NAHSTE:

· Edinburgh University Society and Institutional Records

· Wernerian Natural History Society (1808-1858)

· Edinburgh Geological Society (1834-1990)

· Chemistry Class Books (1844-1972)

· Archives of the Institute of Animal Genetics (1916-1993)

· Molecular Biology Departmental records (1957-1993)

· Science Studies Unit Oral History Project - CDs (1960s-1970s)

Edinburgh University individuals’ collections

· David Gregory (1652-1706)

· Joseph Black (1728-1799)

· John Walker (1731-1803)

· John Robison (1739-1805)

· Robert Jameson (1774-1854)
· Sir Roderick Impey Murchison (1792-1871)

· Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875)

· Sir Archibald Geikie (1835-1924)

· Cossar Ewart (1851-1933)

· Conrad Hal Waddington (1905-1975)

Glasgow University institutional records and individuals’ collections:

· Arts Faculty Minutes (1642-1859)

· Senate Minutes (1730-1930)

· John Ferguson (1870-1923)

· John Smith (1883-1904)

· Frederick Orpen Bower (1885-1925)

· Sir John Graham Kerr (1903-1940)
Glasgow University companies collections:

· Barr & Stroud (1860-1982)

· Babcock & Wilcox (1860s-1970s)

· Kelvin & Hughes (1876-1918)

· William Dixon (1882-1958)

· British Alcan (1882-1990s)

· W. Grant & Co (1887-1968)

· Garscube Estate (1890-1948)

· Glasgow University Natural History Society (1892-1894)

· James Finlay Plc (1898-1939)

·Edmiston and Mitchell (1903-1965)

Heriot-Watt institutional records:

· Departmental and faculty minutes

· Handbooks

· Module descriptors

· Exam papers

Heriot-Watt individuals’ collections:

· Arthur Pillans Laurie (1900-1928)

· Henry Briggs (1919-1935)

· Dr T. Robertson (c.1920s-1979)

· Professor Tom Patten (1926-)

· James Cameron Smail (1928-1950)

· Hugh Bryan Nisbet (1950-1967)

· Robert Allan Smith (1968-1974)

Data components

We used seven data components:

1. ISAD(G)2 descriptions

2. ISAAR(CPF) records

3. informed links

4. on-line themes and sources essay

5. subject terms

6. images

7. sound clips

1. The widely used data structure standard ISAD(G) 2 was chosen for our descriptions and was RSLP’s preferred standard for archives cataloguing.  They were very keen that the appropriate professional standards should be employed.  Typically we used up to four hierarchically nested levels of description, broad fonds or collection level, main functional sub-divisions, or sub-fonds, a series level such as for a run of minutes for example, and item level descriptions for individual units or documents.

As well as the standard fields you would expect to find in an ISAD record, NAHSTE also had various ‘access points’ fields, for such as names and places.  It was also vital that these conformed to professionally recognised standards so we used the UK’s National Council on Archives’ Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names as it had been widely adopted to standardise name usage by the UK archives profession.

2. The International Archival Authority Records or ISAARS for corporate bodies, persons and families we saw as the appropriate standard in which to capture separate contextual information on individuals such as detailed biographical data on particular scientists and a way of linking descriptions horizontally across the collections as well as vertically through the ISAD’s.

We rapidly built up a list of several hundred individuals we wanted to create ISAAR records for but equally rapidly realised there was no way this could be done and had to be quite disciplined about the amount of time devoted to researching e.g. a particular scientist’s foreign correspondents.  So we tended to limit the ISAAR production line to those individuals mentioned in the collection level descriptions.

3. and 4. The on-line themes and sources essay arose from a discussion within the project management group that despite all the very detailed indexing and description there was still a place for something that would emphasise some of the major themes we’d identified, such as the inter-relationships between the partners and link directly from the essay to relevant descriptions.  In other words, yet another way into the data.  So this is a very good example of effective collaboration with our academic clientele as the essay was actually supplied by our resident history of science lecturer at Edinburgh, Dr John Henry.

5. To control and standardise subject terms which were entered in the ISAD record as a separate access point, we chose Library of Congress subject headings combined with carefully chosen specialist scientific vocabulary.

6. and 7. The images, about 100, were chosen on the advice of our AUG to be exemplars of visual material a researcher might come across in the collections.  The sound clips were all drawn from the results of our Science Studies Unit’s oral history project of the 1960s and 1970s and are intended to give a taster to potential researchers as well as picking up on another one of RSLP’s suggested priorities for development. 

From the outset it was envisaged that delivery over the web would involve generating EAD - encoded archival description.  EAD is not without its critics but its wide adoption in the archives world was one of the strongest arguments in its favour.  NAHSTE tags ISAD’s using the EAD DTD but a great deal of work lies behind this carried out within the project which produced its own detailed data formatting guidelines.

The published EAD application guidelines only go so far, and we needed to develop a NAHSTE specific crosswalk between ISAD(G)2 and EAD.  NAHSTE’s application of EAD had to accommodate both multi-level descriptions, multi-repository requirements, and the EAD specifications had to be rigid enough to allow development of hierarchical browsing, structured and free text searching.