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The Servei d'Arxius de Ciència: scientific archives in Catalonia

Centre d'Estudis d'Història de les Ciències Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, by Xavier Roqué

After listening this morning to reports about the archives at CERN and SLAC, and earlier this afternoon about Brazilian developments, I should emphasize that it is a modest, local and recent initiative. Given that it was inspired by existing scientific archives units, I am not going to dwell on our common interest in preserving and making known contemporary science archives, but will rather focus on what I take to be the distinctive features of our Servei. I hope that what I have to say may prove helpful to those who, like ourselves, are new to this game, but may also be of interest to experienced participants in this meeting caring for international cooperation in our field.

What is the Servei d'Arxius de Ciència? A Commission including historians of science, archivists and scientists runs the Servei. Funds come mostly from the Institut d'Estudis Catalans, a learned society that promotes Catalan culture, which approved a three-year budget to get the project running; the Servei is also supported by the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, which together with the Institut provide administrative facilities and secretarial help. The Servei is thus a virtual unit, with no premises of its own, which takes advantage of the Catalan archival system and the infraestructure of the promoting institutions.

You may wonder, why Catalonia? Or perhaps not. As cello player and composer Pau Casals famously remarked before the United Nations, Catalonia is a nation, albeit a nation without state. I do need to labour the point in the capital of Scotland. A Catalan science archives unit makes sense, much as the Catalan National Library and the Catalan National Theater. Moreover, the preservation of our language and heritage is one of the foremost aims of our patron, the Institut d'Estudis Catalans. However, the reasons for our Catalan specificity are also practical: Catalonia is a manageable geographical unit and funding proved easier to secure. We set out to do what others may or should have done before for the whole of Spain and, to be sure, we would like to extend our activities to the rest of the country. But this seemed too an ambitious aim to begin with, and anyway not a feasible one with limited funds.

How did we establish the Servei? As a historian of science, most of the time I use archives and do not care much about them as such. Some years ago, however, together with a small group of historians in Barcelona, we began thinking about creating a science archive unit modelled after the ones we had most profited from, personally speaking, the AIP Center for History of Physics, and the British National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists. The idea was well received and readily adopted by some university archivists and scientists, who helped define the project. We then began searching for funds, but these were not surprisingly not forthcoming. Thus, we were not able to convince the Catalan National Archive that the initiative was worth undertaking. Even when the importance of science was acknowledged, it was not clear (and still is not) that science archives deserved so much care and attention. This is perhaps tied to the fact that we neither have a powerful scientific culture nor a sustained scientific tradition.

Be it as it may, we finally managed to launch our service by stressing that it belonged to a broader research effort, aimed at documenting and writing the history of Spanish recent science. The research dimension has proved crucial for us, and it remains so. There is a growing awareness that the last four decades have witnessed substantial changes in the Catalan and Spanish scientific communities, including the adoption of international standards of rigour and excellence. Some disciplines, like high-energy physics or molecular biology, thrive vigorously. From the 1960s onwards the Spanish scientific community took shape at quick pace. Franco was still in power (he died in 1975) and this naturally poses the question: how did it come?

It was just about time to tackle the problem of contemporary scientific archives, which is very uneven. I am not qualified to give you an overview of scientific archives in Catalonia, least in Spain. Suffice to say that in Catalonia institutions are now required by law to keep their archives under a unified managing system. Several museums and scientific institutions, such as the Cartographical Institute or the Zoology Museum, house rich historical archives that have barely been studied, and their keepers are eager to disseminate knowledge about the range and content of their collections. The same is by and large true for the rest of Spain, especially with regard to the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC).

However, there were reasons to worry about personal archives, which are for us the most vulnerable type of record. Many of the key scientists in this recent key period are now retiring, and no one is making sure their memory will be preserved. I was reminded about Margaret Gowing's report of her visit to James Chadwick, who kept a treasure trove of documents in his house, when we interviewed a prominent theoretical physicist and science administrator about to retire at the University of Barcelona. When asked about the reasons that led Spain to leave CERN in 1968, he produced a folder with crucial letters and reports whose destiny was uncertain - it still is because we have not yet managed to convince him that these papers should go to some archive. (Curiously enough, it was leaving CERN that provided Spanish theoretical physicists with lavish funds to promote the discipline. This is a good example of how local archives can help clarify global questions, such as the creation of a European system of science and technology).

As for the information we have gathered so far, I should simply add that even though our emphasis is on contemporary archives we do not restrict ourselves to this period, but are open to former periods as well; and also that we intend to inform about existing scientific archives and assist archives in the classification of collections that have been deposited but not catalogued (a common situation).

We have just began and are gathering information through our web site, which includes a form to send us basic information about archival repositories or collections. We present the information in two indexes, one for repositories and the other for collections, and for every collection there is a card with information about both the collection and the repository. Have a look if you please: http://www.uab.es/cehic/serveidarxiusdeciencia/

I hope to be able to report again about the Servei at our next meeting. This would mean we have been able to survive as an institution.