Constructing History:
The John C. Haas Archive of Science and Business at CHF

John C. Haas Archive of Science and Business

Inside the John C. Haas Archive of Science and Business.

In the early 1980s all of CHF was housed in two rooms in the basement of a building at the University of Pennsylvania.

John C. Haas, philanthropist and retired chairman of Rohm and Haas Company, was there with CHF from the beginning—in fact, before the beginning. Haas’s support and advocacy played a major role in CHF’s establishment and helped transform CHF (then known as the Center for the History of Chemistry) from a modest organization to the internationally renowned repository that it is today, with over 120,000 printed volumes; 30,000 photographs; and the papers of hundreds of illustrious scientists, engineers, companies, and organizations.

“John helped steer the Center for the History of Chemistry in Philadelphia to global prominence, as he stayed involved through three decades,” said CHF founder and past president Arnold Thackray in a 2011 interview.

Now CHF is honoring Haas through the dedication of the John C. Haas Archive of Science and Business, the organization’s newest milestone, one that will serve the history-of-science community for decades to come. Located on 3rd Street just across the parking lot from CHF’s offices, the archive building will contain CHF’s growing collection of papers of famous and significant scientists, engineers, and innovators; the historical records of important businesses and industries that have a strong science, technology, and medical connection; and the papers of scientific and engineering societies and organizations that have had a major impact on science.

Further, the space provided by the John C. Haas Archive will allow for the acquisition of materials in the history of chemistry that may not otherwise have been attainable. And in a few cases the building may save some collections from being lost altogether.

“The archive helps improve the chances of collections being preserved that otherwise might not find a home,” says Ron Brashear, the Arnold Thackray Director of the Othmer Library of Chemical History at CHF. Without the archive building, “If we were offered a collection, we might have to decide we couldn’t take it, and there might not be another place that could take the collection. Not everyone has the same priorities that we do.”

Originally built in 1855 the building has a classic mid-19th-century brownstone façade: ornate but modest—the kind of place one could imagine housing a roaring fire on a winter’s night. But now the inside is all business. Massive, solid-gray steel shelving units, standing three-and-a-half stories tall, reach to the ceiling, most accessible only by a lift. These shelves will eventually hold approximately 8,500 linear feet of material—1.6 miles—and allow CHF to move materials from a storage facility in Delaware to CHF’s grounds.

According to Brashear, this move could help lead to more discoveries on the part of researchers. “If you have all this material in one place, you can start making connections between different collections that might not be obvious on the surface,” says Brashear. “The more you have in one place, the more you can dig in and make serendipitous discoveries.”

It was through a collections acquisition that this opportunity to honor Haas’s legacy emerged. When The Dow Chemical Company purchased Rohm and Haas in 2009, it inherited a century’s worth of the company’s archives. Dow—also an early advocate of CHF—decided to entrust the Rohm and Haas archives, along with its own company archives, to CHF. In addition to naming the building in honor of Haas, the Rohm and Haas Company archives were the first materials placed within the new building after its official dedication on October 10.

In a world where talk is cheap, Haas was a modest man of action. According to Thackray, who was instrumental in the new building’s development, “John was a gentle man in every sense: polite, quiet, and thoughtful. His complete integrity is displayed in the fact that when he said he would do something, he did it.”

Though Haas passed away in 2011, his ability to keep his promises will continue to benefit the history-of-chemistry community. The John C. Haas Archive of Science and Business will help CHF’s collections grow for decades—just as Haas helped CHF grow during his lifetime.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of CHF's newsletter, Transmutations. Join CHF's family of supporters with an online donation, and we'll send you a print version of Transmutations three times a year.




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