A new scientific archive – launch and reflections

The event

I recently attended the launch of the EMBL archives, in its new purpose-built facility at the heart of the EMBL Heidelberg campus.  Most of the audience were from EMBL but there a few scientific archivists there too, admiring what has been achieved.

At the launch event we had a chance to look round the new facility and see some documents and photos from the archive. Then we heard talks by Iain Mattaj (EMBL Director), Giulio Superti-Furga (EMBL alumnus and Scientific Director of CeMM) and Anne-Flore Laloe (EMBL archivist) . All three speakers emphasised that the archive is and will continue to be a community-driven effort. EMBL alumni from across the world have submitted material. The archive is all about the people.

Cutting the ribbon to launch the archive. The slide shows the building where the archive is located.

Celebrating in style with jelly/fruit/cake

The archive

The germ of the idea for an archive came from the EMBL Alumni organisation as they prepared to work on the 40th anniversary of EMBL in 2014. They enlisted Sydney Brenner to endorse the idea (he had written to Nature in 2007 about the need for historical archives of science ).  Iain Mattaj, the EMBL Director, backed the idea and EMBL management took action to implement it.  Anne-Flore Laloe was recruited in 2015 to be the archivist.

Rolling stacks provide about 600 linear metres of shelving

As well as documents there are old instruments

The director’s view

Iain Mattaj stressed that it is important to keep records and archives of important information on events which help to shape our science and our society. This new archive is primarily about EMBL and EMBO but, because of the major role those organisations have played in the last 40+ years, the archive is also important for European molecular biology more generally.

Iain thanked Jenny Haynes and Jenny Shaw from the Wellcome Library for their input and support, as well as many others who lent support or ideas to the project to create the archive. And, of course, he thanked the archivist Anne-Flore who has taken the ideas forward, developed them and made them a reality.

The alumnus view

Giulio Superti-Furga recalled that several decades ago a small group of physicists and geneticists coalesced around the new field of molecular biology. Now there is a huge community of people working in molecular biology who have built a massive scientific field. Giulio compared the field’s development to someone running up to the top of a hill and then, exhausted, pausing to ask ‘how did we get here? Can I remember? Where are we?’  He said that this is why we need an archive.  The paradox is that it is exactly when things are happening that we have no time to record them. Hence EMBL only thought to create an archive after 40 years of leading research.

Giulio said that the archive is a fantastic, major milestone which also has symbolic value – showing how the molecular biology community in Europe came of age. He hopes that it will inspire other organisations too.

Archive photo of the EMBL site

The archivist’s view

Anne Flore started in her new role at EMBL with a blank slate, but huge expectations. When she started she had one cardboard box of papers and records.

“Archiving for EMBL’s future”

In the early days she talked to as many people as possible and told us that reactions were mixed. One person said “I’ve never seen an archivist before.” Another said “I thought I was going to meet with the EMBL anarchist!”.  She also held talks with archivists in many other institutions as she turned the initial plans into realistic ambitions. She wrote terms of reference, a collecting policy. Procured a catalogue system. The setup of the archive needs to stand the test of time, be adaptable to future changes and reflect the spirit of EMBL.

She catalogued the first item in mid-2016. Some big themes of the archive thus far are: instrumentation, photos, training, bioinformatics, social aspects of the lab.

Now the need is to ensure that things are collected in a representative fashion. Capturing material across all fields and types, including things that are being worked on right now. Historians may be interested in documents related to publications (cf  Darwin’s notebooks; Newton’s letters). Researchers should consider what papers of theirs might be of interest. Anne-Flore has started doing oral interviews too.

Her longterm goal is that no scientists will question the need for and existence of science archives.

To learn more about her approach, see her 2017 EMBO Reports article, explaining how “Archives for molecular biology preserve the heritage of science beyond the published record for future scholars”.

Anne-Flore emphasized that the EMBL archive is an accessible resource. Anyone can come in. It is a contemporary archive of science and technology, part of the broader landscape of archives.

Further reflections from Giulio

Two years ago I heard Giulio talk about the EMBL archive and the role of a scientific archive, at the first scientific archives workshop. He had some interesting ideas about the responsibility that scientists bear to future generations and he developed some of these ideas again in his talk at the archive launch.

Giulio believes that scientists should start self-reflecting while they are doing their research.  He said that without historical knowledge, we easily forget how things happened. For example, it is startling to be reminded that until the early 1960s most scientists thought that protein was the carrier of heritable characteristics.

Giulio sees it as a duty for scientists to record the history of their own research. He started a habit over 20 years ago to document his research and his work in a daily journal. He uses black ink on acid-free paper. He has written about 7,000 pages into this journal over the past 20 years.

Giulio’s notebooks

Researchers now are being encouraged to adopt the tenets of ‘Responsible science and innovation’ (RRI) – a kind of extended research ethics framework. The EU defines RRI as covering ethics, societal engagement, gender equality, open access/science and science education. Giulio’s definition of RRI also includes “proper recording of work and intellectual contribution” – going beyond publishing papers to record the context of research.

He then outlined what he’d like to see become mainstream practice:

  • Training young scientists to understand the importance of being responsible and to understand the importance of accountability.
  • Training established scientists to manage their data / reagents / legacy wisely.
  • Foster the interface between natural sciences and humanities and create exposure of young natural scientists to social scientists and historians.
  • Have all major scientific projects and initiatives be accompanied by a social scientist (e.g. historian or sociologist).
  • Interview veterans and encourage them to save and contribute their personal archives.

My thoughts

The archives ‘catch-up’ model seen at EMBL (collecting archives 40 years after the organisation began) is similar to what happened at CERN (collecting archives 25 years after the organisation began).  At the EMBL event I talked to the Records Manager of a new research institute. She is considering how to make the case now for defining the approach to archives, and I am in the same situation. Young organisations can be too busy establishing themselves to spend time thinking about archives. It’s good in theory to start collecting materials from the beginning, but it is hard to persuade people to see current documents as part of history.

I love Giulio’s practice of keeping research notebooks, but I suspect few researchers will be tempted to follow suit. I think his idea for attaching a social scientist to major projects is good, but perhaps an ethnographer or anthropologist would be even better. I don’t expect this will become widespread, but even to see some projects adopt the idea would be interesting.

It’s good to see scientific archives becoming more visible – the second workshop on science archives will take place later this month. I’ll be interested to learn there about new ways to capture the record, the process, the history of science.


About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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