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History of Science, Medicine, and Technology

Archives and Special Collections

Archives and Special Collections are frequently a good source of primary material for research papers in the history of science, medicine, and technology. They offer an opportunity for the researcher to work with original items related to their topic and contain a treasure trove of rarely investigated material. Archival research has the potential for providing the researcher with unique sources of information allowing her or him to make significant contributions our knowledge of historic events.

While most people have, no doubt, heard of archives before, you may be wondering what kind of material they contain, how you can access them, and what special considerations archives research might have.

Archives generally contain original or unpublished documents, artifacts, correspondence, and memorabilia. Scientific or medical archives may also contain lab notebooks, manuscripts, reprints/offprints, and research data. Each archive is unique and because the items are original, no two archives will contain the same documents. Because of this, it is difficult to define exactly what materials may be found in an archival collection. Documents and artifacts may be of a biographical, personal, or professional nature. Typically, archives will maintain a 'finding aid' for each collection which will describe the contents, organization, and scope of the collection. These 'finding aids' may or may not be available online.

Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive source to identify whether archives exist or where they might be located. Archives are generally organized by collections, which can be biographical, institutional, or subject-based. So you could have an archival collection of an individual scientist, a laboratory/department, or field of research. When they are biographical they are sometimes called 'personal papers'.

To identify whether an archival collection exists, it could be as simple as conducting a search of the internet for a persons name with 'archives' or 'personal papers'. Alternatively, you could look through the bibliographies of biographies or histories of a person, institution, or topic to see what archives the author cited. As a final measure, you could contact the library or archives at an institution closely affiliated with the individual, institution, or topic of interest. Archival collections are often maintained by the government, institutions/societies, and universities. A few of the larger archival institutions are the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) (this is the national archives which also has local branches and focuses on U.S. history), the American Philosophical Society (an historic society focused on American intellectual collections), and the Wellcome Library archives (located in London, the Wellcome Library focuses on medical history). In addition, most universities maintain archives.

In addition to archives, many libraries maintain 'special collections' which often consist of historic manuscripts and rare books. The National Library of Medicine is a fantastic free source for finding old medical texts. Other local sources which may have collections relevant to history of science, medicine, and technology research include the NYU Archives, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library and Archives including their Digital Archives, New York Historical Society, New York Public Library, Brooklyn Historical Society, and New York Academy of Medicine.

Come archives and special collections are available digitally online, however most are physical collections which require a site visit.

While many archives and special collections are made available to researchers who may or may not be directly affiliated with their parent institutions, almost all have cloased-stacks and will require an appoint. Closed-stacks means that the researcher selects the material they wish to consult through a catalog, finding aid, or with the assistence of a librarian or archivist, and the material is brought to the researcher in a reading room. With closed-stacks, the researcher is not able to browse the collection in person. If you plan to visit an archives or special collection, you should be aware that there are often strict rules about bringing bags, pens, computers, etc. into the reading room. In addition, due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), most medical archives will require a significant amount of advanced notice and paper-work before you can view their collections.

If you are interested in finding an archival collection and don't know where to begin, contact one of our librarians and they will be happy to help.

Seminal/Fundamental Papers

Seminal or Fundamental Papers in the history of science, medicine, and technology are those historic scientific or medical papers which first contain the first or primary publication of a notable scientific or medical principle. Scientific and paper articles are often republished over time with corrections, amendments, additional data, or reinterpreted analysis. Frequently, a researcher in the history of science, medicine, and technology would like to read the original publication which announces a new theory, principle, or idea.

A famous example of a seminal paper is the 1953 publication of 'A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid' by James D. Watson and Francis Crick in the journal Nature in which they describe the structure of DNA for the first time. If you are researching the history of the discovery of the structure of DNA, this would certainly be an important primary source that would would want to read.

As a researcher, you are faced with two important tasks regarding seminal papers. The first is identifying what papers are seminal papers. The second is finding those papers.

Here are a few ways to identify the seminal papers for a particular field or topic:

1) if you already know the key scientists/innovators in the field, you can look up their bibliographies or autobiographies to identify their major works

2) often, someone will publish a book of fundamental papers of a field and will include the editor's analysis of the papers

3) you can skim through a hsitory of the topic to see if the author includes a bibliography or timeline of important works

4) ask your professor or a librarian.

Finding the papers, once you have the citation, is basically the same as finding any article in BobCat. Due to the historic nature of seminal papers, the journals may be out-of-print or the library may not subscribe to the journal's back issues. On the other hand, the papers may be available online for free, may have been reprinted, or may be available in a volume of edited, collected historic papers. In a worst case scenario, a seminal paper could be submitted as an Inter-Library Loan (ILL) request. If you are looking for a particular fundamental paper and are having difficulty finding it, one of our librarians would be happy to help you.