ARC logo

Scientific Association Records Programs: A Beginner's Guide

Why Bother with Records and Archives?

Joint Committee on Archives of Science and Technology (JCAST) Report

Realistically, very little is known about the activities of the great majority of scientific and technological societies and of efforts to preserve their records. In spite of their obvious importance for understanding the community of scientists and engineers, JCAST fears that these records are in grave danger either of loss or wide dispersal (Elliott, ed., Understanding Progress as Process, 1983, p. 16.)

Starting in the early 1960s, the scientific and historical communities evidenced growing concern over the state of documentation for post World War II American science. Conferences were held, scholarly papers published, and centers for the history of specialized scientific disciplines established. In 1978, a committee of archivists, historians of science, and historians of technology was formed with assistance from the National Science Foundation and eventually the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. Records managers were added to JCAST in 1980. The work of this committee, especially its widely distributed final report (1983), has influenced the documentation of science and technology powerfully over the last twelve years.

JCAST's central conclusion was that while the "results literature" (as they termed technical reports generated from research) was emphasized in efforts to document science, far less attention was being paid to saving the records of the conduct and management of scientific work (the "Process" in the final report title).

JCAST reported briefly but trenchantly on scientific societies. While universities are where science is taught and basic research done, and industry and government where it is developed and applied, scientific societies in the JCAST scheme are "facilitators of communication." Associations are where ideas are debated, both in print and at meetings, the currently most accepted knowledge certified, and to a degree, where the community of practitioners is defined. They sponsor meetings, publish monographs and technical magazines and newsletters, establish professional standards, and spread the results of science to the public. Records are most commonly generated by the publications of the society, the central organization, and the officers. Elected officers' papers may largely duplicate files of the central organization, JCAST noted, and if they are preserved, are often deposited with the scientist's or engineer's papers in the archives of their home institution. Among the records JCAST found in associations are:

JCAST recommended that scientific societies support or establish discipline-focused history centers, such as the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, which cooperate with a number of chemistry societies as well as the chemical manufacturing industry. JCAST argued that larger societies with their own headquarters should consider starting an archives and records management program as part of efficient business practice. Those who could not maintain their own records should seek a depository (history center, library, university or other archive) whose collecting policy allows them to accession the material. JCAST stated that history committees within scientific associations should make part of their mandate the insuring that the papers of the society were maintained somewhere. Finally, JCAST hoped that scientific groups would know where the personal papers of their major officers--presidents, journal editors, executive secretaries--had come to rest, and would help shepherd those papers that had not yet made it to an archive to a suitable depository.

JCAST paid greatest attention to records management in relation to industrial science, not scientific societies. Because of the legal and regulatory climate surrounding business in the United States, JCAST knew that records management was likely to strike a responsive chord in the industrial setting. There was concern, however, that general business retention schedules applied without customization to scientific companies would destroy many records needed to document the research work of the firm.

AAAS's Experience

Coincident with JCAST's work, the American Association for the Advancement of Science began to address the issue of what to do with its own records. In 1979, Hans Nussbaum (the AAAS Business Manager, trained as an economist) noted that 1980 would be the centennial year for Science, the society's weekly technical journal. He and Michele Aldrich surveyed some of AAAS's holdings and suggested that a consultant work with them on a more thorough report and plan of action. Dr. Richard Lytle of the Smithsonian Archives led the project, which was supported by a grant from the NHPRC. In July, 1982, Dr. Lytle submitted his report, which was accepted by the AAAS Board of Directors; the Board also acted on Lytle's recommendations and passed an archives policy (see Appendix A) to govern the whole Association. The AAAS Archives was established shortly thereafter.

The AAAS Archives grew tremendously in the next few years as the association moved from four sites scattered around Washington, D.C. to one building. Before they moved, offices sent to the archives records they had been accumulating for decades. The central building included space for the archives with fixed shelving (the floor supports would not take mobile shelving) and adequate temperature and humidity controls (part of the building HVAC system). Nearly all the records in this space have been transferred to acid free boxes. As they prepare records for transfer, most AAAS offices assemble a file list (finding aid) and fill out a transfer form describing the material (see Appendix C). The archives keeps a master computer database of all archival collections that includes the information on the transfer form and notes the existence of a finding aid.

AAAS offices, especially the accounting division, found that they needed to keep some records for a few years before discarding them, but the documents were not needed for long-term, historical preservation in the archives. The association rented nearby storage as an order of magnitude less expense than rental space in the active offices. A new form was devised to control these records.

Richard Lytle noted that AAAS did not put a high priority on maintaining office files, and several years of collecting records from these offices into the archives bore out his observation. In 1992, the AAAS asked the NHPRC to help establish a records management program at AAAS and to report the lessons of doing so to other scientific societies. This is the genesis of this guide.

Affiliated Society Survey

JCAST recommended that AAAS survey scientific societies to learn which ones had archives and records management programs. The universe of organization is large; to keep the survey manageable and to insure a good response rate, AAAS confined itself to a canvass of its affiliated organizations (238 as of 1995). The executive secretary or equivalent officer of each society received a personalized letter explaining the project, a brief questionnaire, and an addressed stamped reply envelope. We expected a response rate of about 25%, but received 72%. The results of the survey are as follows:

Often the society's chief officer (president or executive officer) was listed as the head of the program rather than a specialized staff person or society member.

Advantages of Records Management

The benefits of records management fall into three categories: (1) improving efficiency of association operations, (2) value to the scientific community, and (3) legal justifications.

In his book on record-keeping requirements, Donald Skupsky puts the following phrase in boldface: "Meet you own needs first." The greatest incentives for proper handling of records are that they improve the way the association conducts its business. Susan Diamond estimates, for example, that records management frees up about 40% of the space devoted to file storage. That room is much better used by programs that cary out the goals of an association. She also points out that money is saved that is not squandered on the proliferation of more and more file cabinets and folders. A telling point is the faster retrieval of information when clutter is reduced. Diamond also notes that in 1991 dollars, $120 worth of clerical time is needed in the search for an incorrectly handled document. Thus, if records are well managed, staff will conduct business faster and more accurately. Also, good records produce data for historical perspectives in planning the future of an organization, and historical significant materials are a rich source of inspiration for marketing pieces, from ads to brochures to calendars and right on through the alphabet.

Society members are the segment of the scientific community most likely to gain from keeping good records. To pick a simple but common example, streamlined membership records yield prompt answers to inquiries about dues and subscriptions. When a records program results in an archive of historical records, members can find materials to study and write the history of a society's contributions to the discipline (for example, see the recently compiled post-World War II, two decade history of AAAS, Renewing a Scientific Society, by Dael Wolfle [AAAS, Washington, D.C., 1989]; also the interesting Geological Society of Washington, edited by Eugene Robinson [1993]).

Historians, sociologists, and philosophers of science will use a society's records to write about how science operates (e.g., David Hull's Science as a Process [University of Chicago Press, 1988]), and their results will often find their way into improved science education in the classroom.

Traditionally, the rationale for records programs has centered on legal reasons, which Skrupsky details at length and illustrates with horror stories from case law. Authorities on records management tend to express the legal justification in negative language, stressing the need to avoid lawsuits or once one is filed, minimize the chance of an adverse ruling. But there are positive aspects of records in legal disputes: as Skupsky remarked, records are cheaper evidence than the testimony of witnesses, and good records may be the source of your defense.

Skupsky draws back at several points and reminds readers that regulations tell businesses what records they must keep for certain periods of time, but that without such rules, businesses would probably keep them for about the same period anyway, because the records are simply needed to conduct operations. He also notes that each organization should decide on its own how much longer than the minimum it will keep certain documents. The obvious benefits of retaining historical records must be balanced against the slight but real chance that they could be deployed against you in litigation. He summarizes the legal basis of good records management this way:

<< Previous | Table of Contents | Next >>