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From The Libraries

Inside the Institute Archives

Ruth K. Seidman

The Institute Archives and Special Collections, a unit of the MIT Libraries, represents one of the largest university archives in the country, and its collections are among the most significant records on the history of science and technology in the United States. The primary purpose of the Institute Archives is to document the history of MIT. To do this the Archives collects Institute records, personal papers of MIT faculty members, and MIT publications and theses. Over 90 percent of the 13 million-item collection is stored offsite in a secure, climate-controlled facility.

Although there were always some people at the Institute who were conscious of its history and therefore made an effort to save important materials, the Archives was established only 40 years ago, in 1961, when MIT began the systematic collection of materials in one place. The impetus was the realization that 1965 would be the centennial year for the Institute, and historical records would be in demand.


Institute Records

Forming the core of the Archives holdings, Institute records are collected from executive and administrative bodies; schools and degree programs; centers and labs; committees, councils and associations; student organizations; and associated or affiliated programs. The types of materials include minutes, correspondence, reports, financial records, drawings and plans, some visual materials, printed matter, and other records produced in the course of Institute business. Although the bulk of the Archives holdings relate to Institute activity in the twentieth century, the earliest records date to 1859. For a list of items in this collection, see http://libraries.mit.edu/archives/research/archives-list.html.


Manuscript Collections

The vast majority of the manuscript collections consist of personal papers of MIT faculty members. These collections document various aspects of an individual's teaching, research, and professional life. The contents of the collections are wide-ranging and include records such as research notes, course materials, reports, consulting or committee files, drafts of published works, and some visual materials. The collections are often donated to MIT at the time of the faculty member's retirement.

Among the Archives holdings are the papers of Vannevar Bush, Jule Charney, Harold Edgerton, John Ripley Freeman, Albert Hill, Jerome Hunsaker, Arthur Ippen, J. C. R. Licklider, Max Millikan, William Barton Rogers, Robert Seamans, Julius Stratton, Norbert Wiener, and Jerome Wiesner. Also in the collection are the papers of individuals or organizations with a close association to the Institute, such as the first women's architectural firm founded in Boston, Howe, Manning and Almy, and the High Voltage Engineering Corporation founded by Robert J. Van de Graaff, Denis M. Robinson, and John G. Trump. A list of the manuscript collections appears on the Archives Website at http://libraries.mit.edu/archives/research/manuscripts-list.html. Faculty members interested in donating their papers to the Archives receive assistance from the Archives staff in selecting and organizing the material.

The Archives has papers from a large percentage of MIT’s academic departments. The numbers of personal papers collections, by department, are shown in the table.


MIT Publications

Because the Institute Archives is the official repository for all MIT publications, the staff actively collects the publications of the laboratories, departments, research groups, student organizations, and administrative offices. The collection also includes books about MIT such as biographies of MIT-related persons; histories of MIT and MIT schools, departments, and laboratories; and alumni reunion books.

This part of the Archives is known as “The Tech Collection.” It includes complete sets of the MIT president's reports (the annual report), the MIT catalog, the student yearbook Technique, Tech Talk, The Tech, and Technology Review.



The Institute Archives collects and preserves the permanent copy of all graduate theses as well as selected senior theses. In addition to being an official record related to the MIT degree, the thesis is a record of original research, containing information valuable to other researchers, business organizations, future historical researchers, and to family members and descendants.

According to the Archives’ Website, MIT's first graduating class submitted handwritten senior theses in 1868. As departments developed programs of graduate study, the master's thesis and doctoral dissertation became integral parts of the graduate degree requirements. Theses provide a snapshot of what students and their advisors were interested in at any given time in MIT's history. Biographers often read a subject's student work to trace ideas or career objectives back to their source and historians use old theses to identify historical trends.



The Archives has a small number of photographs, primarily those that are part of faculty personal papers collections. The majority of Institute historical photographs are currently housed at the MIT Museum, which collects artifacts that are significant in the life of MIT and produces exhibits and public outreach programs for the areas in which MIT is and has been engaged.


Rare Books

The Archives also includes a rare book collection composed of selected volumes that were part of the early MIT Libraries, the libraries of several MIT founders, and several smaller collections donated by individuals. Among these are the Vail Collection, which contains early works on electricity, ballooning, and aeronautics; the Gaffield Collection of glass and glassmaking; the Baldwin Collection containing works on nineteenth-century civil engineering; and the I. Austin Kelly Collection, which includes significant volumes on early European and American science, technology, and industry. The volumes of the personal library of William Barton Rogers, the first president of MIT, represent Rogers's broad interests in the educational, scientific, and intellectual life of the nineteenth-century – the vision of the man who worked to found MIT


Object of the Month

In order to bring the richness and diversity of the Archives’ holdings to public attention, particularly within the Institute, Archives Head Megan Sniffin-Marinoff several years ago initiated the Object of the Month display opposite the entrance at 14N-118. Each month one item from the collection has been featured and described. Some objects have been Tech Songs, a 1903 book of student songs from the days when MIT was known as Boston Tech, and a 1948 letter from Mayor Curley to then-President Karl Compton, asking that MIT make an immediate study of how to remove that year’s record-breaking accumulation of snow “whether it be by the use of flamethrowers or chemicals or otherwise.” Displays from 1999 through 2001 are shown at http://libraries.mit.edu/archives/mithistory/exhibits-object.html.


Use of the Archives

The materials in the Institute Archives are used not only by faculty, researchers, and administrators for speeches, publications, exhibits, and other projects requiring background information about the Institute, but also for teaching and learning at the Institute. For example, Professor David Mindell regularly sends students in his course “The Structure of Engineering Revolutions” to the Archives to look at materials such as Doc Edgerton’s original notebooks, to show how scientific documentation was collected and maintained, and to use Archives materials for their course projects. In addition, the rare books collection can be utilized to support classroom work in numerous ways. An example of such uses can be found by examining a single volume, such as the 1831 edition of Iceland, or, The journal of a residence in that island, during the years 1814 and 1815 . . ., written by Ebenezer Henderson. Henderson, an English theologian, spent a year traveling in Iceland as an agent of the British and Foreign Bible Society. Students from a cross section of courses might find useful the nineteenth century map of Iceland; illustrations of the natural landscape; descriptions of the climate and volcanic eruptions; and commentary on Icelandic manners, customs, social relationships, religion, education, laws, and literature. In addition, students in linguistics would have access to the glossary of Icelandic words that occur in Henderson’s journal.

Scholars from around the world come to the Archives to conduct in-depth historical research. Some of the institutions using the Archives in recent years were Kyoto University (Japan), University of Melbourne (Australia), Universitat Bochum (Germany), and Hebrew University (Israel) as well as such U.S. institutions as the University of Chicago, Princeton University, the Smithsonian, NASA, WGBH, and several architectural and law firms. A list of citations to monographs, periodicals, Websites, and exhibits for which the Institute Archives and Special Collections' materials were consulted is shown at http://libraries.mit.edu/archives/research/works.html.


Plans for the Future

A major challenge for the Archives staff is to create records identifying and describing items in the vast collection in order to make these items as accessible as possible. The staff is embarking on a large one-year project to process a considerable number of the collections not yet cataloged; it is likely that many important documents will be discovered as a result. During the course of this project, the corridor display and the corresponding Website for the Object of the Month has become the “Object of the Project,” to keep people up to date on the project’s progress and show significant new items that have been identified. The online exhibit is featured on the Archives homepage at http://libraries.mit.edu/archives/.

The Archives also hopes to bring more detailed information about the collection up on the Web and to digitize important items. Funding for digitization is being sought, and the Archives Head Megan Sniffin-Marinoff would welcome suggestions in this area.

Finding ways to handle the preservation of digital records is another challenge facing the MIT Archives staff. By addressing these and other new technological issues while providing stewardship for the vast historical collections of the Institute, the Archives programs actively support ongoing Institute needs while making MIT’s history available to the larger scholarly community.

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