On Friday 17th of November I attended the inaugural Science and Technology Archives Group (STAG) conference held at the fantastic Dana Library and Research Centre. The theme was ‘Collecting Space’ and bought together a variety of people working in or with science and technology archives relating to the topic of ‘Space’. The day consisted of a variety of talks (with topics as varied as The Cassini probe to UFOs), a tour of the Skylark exhibition and a final discussion on the future direction of STAG.
What is STAG?
The Science and technology archives group is a recently formed group (September 2016) to celebrate and promote scientific archives and to to engage anyone that has an interest in the creation, use and preservation of such archives.
The keynote presentation was by Professor Michele Dougherty, who gave us a fascinating insight into the Cassini project, aided by some amazing photos.
Colour-coded version of an ISS NAC clear-filter image of Enceladus’ near surface plumes at the south pole of the moon. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
Her concern with regards to archiving data was context. We were told how her raw data could be given to an archive however it would be almost meaningless without the relevant information about context, for example calibration parameters. Without it data could be misinterpreted.
Dr James Peters from the University of Manchester told us of the unique challenges of the Jodrell Bank Observatory Archive, also called the ‘sleeping giant’. They have a vast amount of material that has yet to be accessioned but requires highly specialised scientific knowledge to understand it. Highlighting the importance of the relationships between the creator of an archive and the repository. Promoting use of the archive was of particular concern, which was also shared by Dr Sian Prosser of the Royal Astronomical Society archives. She spoke of the challenges for current collection development. I’m looking forward to finding out about the events and activities planned for their bi-centenary in 2020.
We also heard from Dr Tom Lean of the Oral History of British Science at the British library. This was a great example of the vast amount of knowledge and history that is effectively hidden. The success of a project is typically well documented however the stories of the things that went wrong or of the relationships between groups has the potential to be lost. Whilst they may be lacking in scientific research value, they reveal the personal side of the projects and are a reminder of the people and personalities behind world changing projects and discoveries.
Dr David Clarke spoke about the Ministry of Defence UFO files release program. I was surprised to hear that as recently as 2009 there was a government funded UFO desk. In 2009 these surviving records were transferred to the National Archives. All files were digitised and made available online. The demand and reach for this content was huge, with millions of views and downloads from over 160 countries. Such an archive, whilst people may dismiss its relevance and use scientifically, provides an amazing window into the psyche of the society at that time.
Dr Amy Chambers spoke about how much scientific research and knowledge can go into producing a film and used Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as an example. This was described as a science fiction dream + space documentary. Directors like Kubrick would delve deeply into the subject matter and speak to a whole host of professionals in both academia and industry to get the most up to date scientific thinking of the time. Even researching concepts that would potentially never make it on screen. This was highlighted as a way of capturing scientific knowledge and the current thoughts about the future of science at that point in history. Today it is no different, Interstellar, produced by Christopher Nolan, consulted Professor Kip Thorne and the collaboration produced a publication on gravitational lensing in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity.
It was great to see the Dana research library and a small exhibition of some of the space related material that the Science Museum holds. There was the Apollo 11 flight plan that was signed by all the astronauts that took part and included a letter from the Independent Television News, as they used that book to help with the televised broadcast. We also got to see the recently opened Skylark exhibition, celebrating British achievements in space research.
Launch of a British Skylark sounding rocket from Woomera in South Australia. Image credit: NASA
The final part of the conference was an open discussion focusing on the challenges and future of science and technology archives and how these could be addressed.
Awareness and exposure
From my experience of being a chemistry graduate, I can speak first hand of the lack of awareness of science archives. I feel that I was not alone, as during the course of a science degree, especially for research projects, archives are never really needed compared to other disciplines as most of the material we needed was found in online journals. Although I completed my degree some time ago, I feel this is still the case today when I speak to friends who study and work in the science sector. It seems that promotion of science and technology archives to scientists (at any stage of their career, but especially at the start) will make them aware of the rich source of material out there that can be of benefit to them, and subsequently they will become more involved and interested in creating and maintaining such archives.
Science and technology archives, for an archivist with little to no knowledge of that particular area of science, understanding the vastly complex data and material is a potentially impossible job. The nomenclature used in scientific disciplines can be highly specialised and specific and so deciphering the material can be made extremely difficult.
This problem could be resolved in one of two ways. Firstly, the creator of the material or a scientist working in that area can be consulted. Whilst this can be time consuming, it is a necessity as the highly specialised nature of certain topics, can mean there are only a handful of people that can understand the work. Secondly, when the material is created, the creator should be encouraged to explain and store data in a way that will allow future users to understand and contextualise the data better.
As science and technology companies can be highly secretive entities, problems with exploiting sensitive material arise. It was suggested maybe seeking the advice of other specialist archive groups that have dealt with highly sensitive archives.
It appears that there is still a great deal of work to do to promote access, exploitation and awareness of current science and technology archives (for both creators and users). STAG is a fantastic way to get like minds together to discuss and implement solutions. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this develops and hopefully I will be able to contribute to this exciting, worthwhile and necessary future for science and technology archives.