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Recovering Science: Progress in the 1990s

Gavan McCarthy
It is most exciting to have assembled in the one place a large number of people all focusing on the documentation of science and technology in Australia. Science and technology are an integral part of our society, they influence our lives daily and form an important part of our cultural heritage. The documentation of science and technology, which includes the preservation of the archives and artefacts relating to science and technology, constitutes an important national activity.

The Australian Science Archives Project, which was only in its infancy at the previous conference in 1985, has by default, taken on some of the role of providing the infrastructure to link together the great diversity of people and organisations involved in some way or other with the preservation of our scientific and technological culture. So, it is with great pleasure, that against the odds, the ASAP has not only survived but flourished since 1985 and has been in a position to organise this third conference on the documentation of science and technology in Australia - Recovering Science: Strategies and Models for the Past Present and Future.

Broad Aims

The ground-work for the 1992 conference was set by two previous conferences in 1981 and 1985. However, there was only a tenuous link between them, and no on-going mechanism developed to undertake the realisation of proposals raised at those meetings. Therefore, any developments that have occurred since 1981, while perhaps stimulated by those conferences, have been essentially ad hoc and not part of a conscious national strategy. So the major question facing us is whether the time is now right for the community of people interested in this area to establish a national strategy to ensure that we work co-operatively, efficiently and effectively towards broad national goals. Perhaps the major difference between the 1992 conference and its predecessors is that it has been organised by a body that is not only solely concerned with the subject matter of the conference but is also planning to stay in existence for the foreseeable future.

Historical Background

The first conference dealing with the archives of science and technology in Australia, in July 1981, attracted 24 enthusiasts from both the archives and academic communities. The second in September 1985 saw an increase in the size of the joint community with a list of participants numbering 54, including 7 who had been at the first meeting. In 1992, we have over 119 registered participants, which on its own accord indicates a significant development of interest in the field. Another indicator of the recent growth in the broad area of history of science in Australia is the steady and continuous growth in the distribution of the History of Australian Science Newsletter. It commenced publication in 1983 to link together that group of people working towards the Australian Academy of Science's bicentennial history of science project, and has grown from an initial readership of about 300 to over 1000. The Australian Science Archives Project took over the editorship and production of the Newsletter in 1990, and we are continually discovering people working in isolation with no idea that there is a significantly large group of people with similar concerns and a growing body of knowledge and expertise. Against this background of growth and development I would like briefly to discuss the issues and recommendations of the first two conferences with a view to establishing a sense of historical continuity with our activities at this conference.

The First Conference: Science Archives Seminar, 24 July 1981

The report of the first meeting held on 24 July 1981 at the Australian Academy of Science and organised by the National Committee for the History and Philosophy of Science is notable, with hindsight, for the way it under-estimated the size of the problem under discussion, both in quantity and scope of records in all areas except those generated by CSIR/O. The focus of the conference was on archives and did not consider the relationship between archives and artefacts. Professor Margaret Gowing, who had set up the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre (A CSAC) in Oxford, was the key commentator on the papers presented, and she spoke at length about the role that such a national science archives project might play in Australia.

Interestingly, the 'Discussions and Recommendations' section of the report ignored this possibility and in fact the notes for the Chairman actually closed the door on the discussion prior to the conference with the advice that 'A CSAC may be premature and unnecessary in Australia, but the NCHPS could offer itself as an honest broker in relating the interests of historians and archivists to scientists and their societies.'

Most of the issues raised and ideas generated by the conference are still valid today. For example: the development of University teaching programs using archives; seminars on archives administration for scientific societies; the role of the Basser Library; the problems of experimental and observational data; the types of records generated by scientific organisations; problems with computer data; payment for archival services; the need to 'sell' the value of the archiving process per se, rather than a particular final outcome which may be the history of science; the change and development of archival systems; and the role of the Guide to Manuscripts Relating to Australia.

Unfortunately, without any infrastructure in place to run with the ideas, it was only possible to issue a very half-hearted set of recommendations:

  1. that some sort of liaison committee be set up between archivists and the National Committee. [I suspect that the Joint Committee on Science Archives which was established in 1982 with Colin Smith as Convenor, came from this recommendation]

  2. the National Committee ask the Academy of Science to take some initiative in getting a Joint Academy approach to science archives. [It was in 1981 that the NCHPS took on an ex-officio representative from the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia]

  3. that a report on this Seminar be sent to the Chairman of the Consultative Committee of the four Academies after it has been reported to the Academy of Science. After this, copies should be sent to the Councils of the four Academies.

  4. that the science correspondents of the respective newspapers should also be contacted and sent a copy of the report.1

Despite the best efforts of the conference to ignore the possibility, efforts to establish an 'Australian Scientific Archives Project' were undertaken by Professor Rod Home in 1983 and by 1985 sufficient funds had been raised for the Australian Science Archives Project to commence operations.

The National Committee for the History and Philosophy of Science still exists as a standing committee of the Australian Academy of Science and includes ex-officio representatives from the Australasian Association for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science, and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. However, it does not appear to have continued its interest or involvement in the archives or documentation of science and technology in Australia. It met most recently in Sydney in the middle of 1992.

The Second Conference: the Archives of Science and Technology in Australia, 19-21 September 1985

This second conference was stimulated by the activities of the Joint Committee on Science Archives (JCSA) but was organised by the School of Librarianship at the University of New South Wales, in particular Professor Carmel Maguire and Ann Pederson. Helen Samuels, Archivist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had been brought to Australia by the University of New South Wales and provided the focus for the meeting. She presented, hot off the press, Appraising the Records of Modern Science and Technology (1985) and stimulated many of us to think more broadly about our activities in documenting science and technology.

Kathleen Oakes in her report of the conference2 discussed three major issues that were identified by the conference delegates. They were:

  1. the problems of documenting a particular theme or subject;

  2. the problems of the documentation of science and technology necessarily involving archives and artefacts;

  3. the problem of lack of funding for archives of science and technology.

The notes I took at that conference as the young and very green Senior Archivist from the Australian Science Archives Project, are not, in retrospect, just a simple record of the presentations but a highly unreliable jumble of ideas. They were inspired by the papers delivered by the keynote speaker Helen Samuels and a number of the local speakers and in particular Colin Smith, who at that stage was the CSIRO Archivist.

However, despite the good intentions of the 21 people who formed the 'Saturday Discussion/Action Groups' and drew up a list of projects or strategies to be undertaken, the momentum set by the conference dissipated quickly as the participants dispersed back to their own patches. The Joint Committee on Science Archives which was going to maintain the momentum lacked financial backing and relied entirely on the goodwill of the individuals concerned. It was not in a position to provide effective follow-up support. The newly established Australian Science Archives Project was not, at that point in its development, in a position to take on that role.

Seven years have passed: we now have archivists in some of our most important museums; we have the Australian Archives taking a leadership role in archival matters generally, and having done specific work on producing guidelines for appraisal of science and technology records; a re-structuring of the role of CSIRO Archive is under way; we have a computer database Register of the Archives of Science in Australia (though admittedly limited in its scope at this stage) which is available in book form and on-line through the National Library of Australia on the OZLINE network; and some new avenues for funding have been identified.

The Third Conference: Recovering Science: Strategies and Models for the Past, Present and Future, 15-17 November 1992

A quick glance through the conference programme reveals that one of the objectives of this conference is to tackle issues one and two from the 1985 Conference. The problem of funding, the third issue, is perennial and has not been listed for specific discussion. However, the conference themes - 'Recovering Science' - as described in the programme provide an intellectual framework for linking all the participants in documenting and understanding science in the Australian context; that is the archivists, museum workers, scientists, historians and even the philosophers.

  1. Recovering Science - finding, processing and preserving the records and artefacts of science and technology.

  2. Recovering Science - reclaiming science as an important part of our heritage.

  3. RECOVERING SCIENCE - re-examining the image of science that is being portrayed and the definition of what is science in our society.

It could be argued that we need a diversity of strategies and ways of working to cope with the variety of tasks before us in the documentation of science and technology in Australia. There is no particular way of working that will be appropriate for all possible circumstances. There have been too many changes over the last two hundred years to even consider a single unified approach. Specific tools to aid in the documentation of specific types of scientific activity may be useful but they must be clearly established in their particular context. There are general principles that can be applied across all ways of working and strategies; principles that will allow us to cope with the diachronic and synchronic variability that is characteristic of any human activity, science being no exception.

What is so special about science and technology that we need to have a national conference to discuss its documentation? Science, as an activity, crosses personal, institutional, state and national boundaries, and creates networks of communication that are different from those created by other activities. Scientists and technologists are at the forefront in the introduction of new technologies, especially those technologies that determine the way they themselves communicate (for example: Email, Fax, and also the generation and storage of electronic data). Scientists, by the very nature of their activities, the structures they create and their personal and intellectual independence, challenge the archivist and museum curator to keep up. Biographers are also challenged to find successful ways of communicating the life and work of scientists to wider audiences. Perhaps this is why there has been such a development of science-based Discipline History Centres in the United States.

The scientific community in Australia is too small to support a variety of subject-specific discipline history centres, but it appears big enough - I hope it is big enough! - to support a centre to cover science generally, the Australian Science Archives Project. But even if it is, no matter how successful ASAP is, it can only cope with a small fraction of what needs to be done. I hope that what this conference will do is help to consolidate and co-ordinate a much wider range of archiving activities in relation to the records of science and technology in this country, within which ASAP can play a useful role. I believe that ASAP could take on part of that coordinating function, - a pivotal part, I would hope, but still only a part. I would like now to talk about ASAP itself, and our hopes for it, so that it can be seen how much we can contribute to the task that needs to be done, and how much still needs to be done.

Australian Science Archives Project. Providing Access to Australia's Scientific Heritage: Statement of Purpose

Early in 1992 we went through a strategic planning process as part of an application for funding to develop our operations in 1993. From that process we defined our vision and mission and a set of key objectives.

To provide, not only for all Australians but for the international community, access to our scientific heritage through information about the documentary records and historical artefacts of science and technology in Australia.

To establish a co-operative framework linking creators, custodians and users, to ensure the best possible preservation of and access to the archives of science and science-based medicine and technology in Australia.

More specifically the Australian Science Archives Project aims to provide:

  1. Action to identify, preserve and make accessible collections of records relating to science and science-based medicine and technology in Australia.
  2. Advice to individuals and scientific institutions regarding the best management of their archival collections.
  3. Information on the history of Australian science, particularly through its published guides to archives and individual collections and the History of Australian Science Newsletter.
  4. Maintenance and development of the national database, the Register of the Archives of Science in Australia, as a means of access to the distributed national collection of archival materials relating to science and science-based medicine and technology.

However, the most important decision taken was to establish a second office of the ASAP in Canberra. This is a very exciting development for the ASAP as it will be another step towards establishing it as truly national not only in intent but in actuality.


It is clear that the Australian Science Archives Project sees a pivotal role for itself in the development of national strategies for the documentation of science and technology. However, to help meet our collective goal of documenting Australian science and technology, institutions and individuals need to consider their roles, to determine what projects and activities would be best undertaken by the ASAP on behalf of the entire community.

Organisationally, we are small and can only directly assist in the archiving of a small fraction of the scientific and technological records generated; but if we can draw that diverse collection of individuals and institutions together to work co-operatively, we will have made some contribution.


1 Unpublished report of the Science Archives Seminar, 24 July 1981 to the National Committee for the History and Philosophy of Science, Australian Academy of Science, page 14. In the R.W. Home collection at the University of Melbourne Archives and in the official files of the Committee held by the Basser Library, Australian Academy of Science.

2 K. Oakes, 'Sci-Tech Meeting Report', Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 14, no.2, November 1986, pp. 169-172.

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