Estate Planning in Chemical & Engineering News

December 3, 2012 - Philadelphia, PA

This guest editorial is by Jeffrey I. Seeman, a historian of chemistry at the University of Richmond. Seeman serves on the board of directors of the Chemical Heritage Foundation and was chair of the ACS Division of the History of Chemistry in 2005 and 2006.

Recently, I received this e-mail:

“As I’m sure you are aware, my esteemed colleague [expunged] passed away earlier this year. I write to solicit your opinion regarding some of his archival materials. Somewhat to my surprise, our University Archives did not express interest in his research materials. Unbeknownst to me, once our University Archives passed on the materials, our staff members disposed of much of the remainder without further consultation. Small bits and pieces have been variously distributed to former coworkers and to his family. At this point, about the only collection that remains is the collection of his 35-mm slides from his research seminars and his collection of his students’ theses. Are these worth saving? And, if so, what should be done with them?”

This message shocked me. That we are trashing our own papers under pressure for space is disturbing. Lost forever are the backstory, the background, and the records that explain and place into context important slices of science. Publications are just a part of the whole. Whether in paper or electronic format, scientists’ correspondence, drafts, literature searches, notes, and photographs are important historical resources. All of these unpublished documents may well provide a more reliable insight into the thoughts of the scientist than the publications themselves. Furthermore, it’s not only the papers of the most famous among us that are important. A full and rich understanding of our time requires a broad knowledge of the underpinnings of our community’s people, interactions, and processes.

Even as the files of our aging chemists are dumped, there is hope. The Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) collects, preserves, and makes accessible the papers of chemists and chemical engineers. However, even with its soon-to-be constructed archives building, CHF’s capacity to collect is finite. In cases where a collection does not fit within CHF’s collection scope, archivists are available to provide assistance, guidance, and recommendations, as are members of the Division of the History of Chemistry (HIST) of the American Chemical Society.

What may seem an obstacle to collections—the movement of records from paper to electronic format—may be a savior. Electronic records management software is now available that can reduce costs and improve information searching by users.

Collections from academia, industry, and government labs can all be of value. Does your institution have an archives, and will it welcome your papers and those of your colleagues? Do issues such as ownership and confidentiality affect the availability of your documents? Is a specific collection suitable for permanent preservation? The answers to these questions require an exceptional insight into the future and a commitment to the records of science. Conversations between the archivists and the chemists will help the archivists understand the significance of the work and the chemists understand the realities of a collection policy.

Academics may need to convince their university’s archivists and, if necessary, their university’s administration that the papers of specific chemists should be collected. Each campus may require a “champion” to step up to the plate and inspire the issue. It may well take the dean of sciences, encouraged by your department, to motivate the broadening of an institution’s collection policy. Success will depend on providing more resources to the archives, including having archivists who are scientifically literate. Although industrial institutions face controlling legal considerations, several companies have donated files to CHF.

We have another, more personal challenge. We must estimate the value of our documents, perhaps with the assistance of a historian of science and an archivist, and encourage our colleagues to do likewise. With an eye to the future, we need to archive our electronic files and e-mails during our career. Our institutions need to provide the required records management software. As individuals and as a community, we must do estate planning of and for our own heritage.

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