Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center

“The Life and Work of Linus Pauling (1901-1994): A Discourse on the Art of Biography.”

February 28 - March 2, 1995

Video: “Manuscript Collections in the Biographical Enterprise.” Robin Rider

11:13 - Abstract | Biography | More Videos from Session 4: Historians and Contemporary Scientific Biography


[Introductory remarks by Mary Jo Nye]

Robin E. Rider: Manuscripts and archives have long played an important role in the biographical enterprise. The archives trade is not usually the subject of front-page news, but a recent Stanford acquisition has attracted much attention and triggered much comment. I refer to the Allen Ginsberg Papers, not those of a scientist, to be sure, but perhaps useful as a point of comparison. Ginsberg has made a career reveling in public unconventionality, and the collection reflects that fact. So too is he disinclined to limit access to the materials, however controversial they may be, and, indeed, however controversial the career that they document. The collection is very complete, perhaps overly so. Ginsberg explains, "I deliberately saved everything I could." The collection thus speaks to topics ranging from poetry to censorship, psychedelic drugs to Buddhism, CIA activities, and reactions to unpopular political causes. It includes hundreds of notebook journals, ephemera, more than a thousand audio tapes, a very rich photo archive, electric bills and lunch receipts, vast clipping files, and what archivists discreetly call "personal effects." This last category has caught the press's fancy, and caused Stanford much flak, since it is said to include Ginsberg's tennis shoes, beard trimmings, and dried plant material from South America. The presumed purchase price has heightened the controversy.

But why did Stanford seek the collection? The curator who negotiated its acquisition saw the collection as a rich resource for studies of postwar American literature and cultural history more generally. It fits well with other archives of American poets at Stanford, and also constitutes an extraordinary body of documentation of left-wing politics and reaction to it.

Archival Units

I raise the topic of the Ginsberg papers primarily to demonstrate the utility and versatility of the biographical unit -- that is, a collection of an individual's papers -- when it comes to building archival collections, collections that must serve both the inquiries of present scholars and those of decades to come. The three papers by Larry Holmes, Sam Schweber, and Judy Goodstein suggest three different ways to mine the archival universe in the service of historical and biographical studies. Holmes's paper demonstrates very clearly the information and insight (and in some cases the unanswered questions) that derive from a painstaking reading of materials in an individual's papers. By noting that his questions uncovered a critical lab notebook still in private hands, he also speaks to the ways that archives are built. Schweber's paper, by describing parallel, even intersecting, lives as a way of getting at a biography of one individual, suggests the utility of an international community of archival collections, parallel to the community of individuals he studies. And Goodstein, in writing of the history of Caltech and the individuals who contributed to it (and in building the collections at Caltech to support many different brands of historical inquiry), knows very well the value of an institutional approach, complementing administrative records with the papers of key individuals. For all three, as for the rest of us, the complexity of the archival record reflects the complexity of the institutional connections, funding patterns, and interplay of disciplines of twentieth century science.

Collections in Digital Form

What the Pauling papers afford us, however, is a unique combination: a very rich collection, spanning multiple institutions and research initiatives, science and politics, and many decades -- a "mountain of raw material," "an avalanche of information," as Pauling's biographers have found. As the handsome finding aid describes, the Pauling Collection is full of materials to support and enrich a wide array of historical inquiry.

More than that, the technological choice Oregon State University Special Collections has made to preserve and enhance access to the papers offers historians and biographers new and intriguing possibilities for managing and exploiting this avalanche of information. I do not mean here to rehearse the technological problems presented by a project to digitize a collection of this magnitude, nor to belabor the yet unresolved questions of intellectual property rights that attend efforts to make the collection available over the Internet. But rather I would like to suggest that such projects, with the sophisticated phrase and spatial pattern searching they enable, will allow researchers to streamline their path through the digitized archival landscape, to cope with the mountains of raw material documenting contemporary science. It has never been easy, for example, to pinpoint in archives correspondence from person B to person C about person A, and yet that is just the sort of thing we wish to find. But as the universe of digitized archival material expands, more and more such queries can yield up useful results, and in fairly short order. In chemistry, in particular, where models and diagrams carry so much weight, searches through digitized collections for diagrams conforming to a basic pattern can be undertaken, and modified, with relative ease -- something that was possible only with the investment of much patience and time when a person's papers stayed on paper. Other participants in this conference can doubtless suggest other useful lines of inquiry that a digitized collection can facilitate.

I am presuming, hopefully not over-optimistically, that satisfactory solutions to issues of intellectual property rights will eventually be reached, so that such digitized collections can be made available over a network to a larger universe of users. How such a broadening of access to archival collections will affect the historical enterprise is still an open question. Certainly it will pile up more mountains of potentially relevant information for studies of contemporary biography and recent science, manageable only if the development of practical searching strategies and techniques keeps pace. We will be watching closely the progress of projects like the digitization of the Pauling Collection, and their exploitation by historians and biographers, as we continue to build, manage, and traverse mountains of archival information.


Watch Other Videos

Session 1: Linus C. Pauling Day Lecture

Session 2: The Biographer's Picture of Linus Pauling

Session 3: The Personal View of Linus Pauling and His Work

Session 4: Historians and Contemporary Scientific Biography

Return to Main Page