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Archiving the History of Mathematics

Math on the Web  >  Archiving the History of Mathematics  [Updated: Jan 11, 2012]

Archiving the History of Mathematics

Donor's Guide to the Preservation of the Personal Papers of Mathematicians

Since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, mathematicians have been concerned about preserving a record of their subject's past. That past is more than a sequence of important names and events: researchers, teachers, administrators, or expositors, and indeed all, whether professionals or amateurs, who have participated in the mathematical experience are a part of its history. Their personal papers and the records of mathematical institutions and organizations are a source for an understanding of that history.

What to Preserve

The papers and memorabilia of a person generally fall into three categories: personal, family, and organizational. Personal papers include correspondence, diaries, drafts, lecture notes as a student or teacher, photographs, awards, audible records, funding proposals, project reports, and computer files. Books and journals from the mathematician's library, especially those annotated or used as a student, may also be useful. These, and items concerning family life, may not relate directly to mathematics but nevertheless could say something significant about the environment in which the mathematician worked.

When someone belongs to an educational institution or a business concern, or participates in any other organization as an officer, trustee, secretary, committee member, journal editor, or other such capacity, then it is possible that papers relating to the organization are held by the person. These could include grade records, correspondence, reports, minutes, and financial and legal papers. Some organizations prefer that such material be returned to them while others are content to note where the papers are deposited. It is generally best to consult with an archivist before trying to evaluate which particular material is worth keeping together or worth keeping at all. The research value of a collection can well be diminished if it is split up into different parts for different archives or if material is rearranged from its original order.

Where to Donate Material

Many colleges, universities, libraries, local historical societies, and large corporations preserve collections of written, visual, and audible records created by mathematicians. Archivists at these institutions welcome enquiries from prospective donors and are willing to advise about what to preserve and to assist in gathering or transferring material. An archives' acceptance of material may be constrained by demands on its budget and on its space but this should not discourage a potential donor from making enquiries of other possible archives.

The two principal mathematical organizations in the United States---the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America---have established their official archives at national repositories that are also willing to advise individuals and organizations and to accept material in cases where other archives are not available or suitable. The AMS-MAA Joint Archives Committee welcomes inquiries from anyone who is concerned with the disposition of personal papers and seeking advice on suitable repositories. (See Contacts below.)

Donations and Access

Tax deductions may not currently be taken for the value of gifts of personal papers donated by their creators. Their heirs or estates may, however, be allowed to take such gift deductions. Interested donors should discuss this with the archivist and their tax advisor at the time of the negotiation of the gift. An appraisal will be required and the archivist may be able to provide the names of professional appraisers. Preparing materials for use by researchers may include refining the organization of the material, filing papers in acid-free folders and boxes, placing non-paper items in suitable containers, and preparing a guide to the collection that may include a brief biography of the subject to provide a context for the collection. Sensitive material should be discussed with the archivist during the initial negotiations. While repositories desire to make all materials freely accessible to qualified researchers, they normally will agree to close a part, or all, of a collection for a specific period to protect the privacy of the donor or others.


The members of the AMS-MAA Joint Archives Committee welcome enquiries.

E-mail address for the committee as a whole:

Archives of American Mathematics
Katherine J. Adams, Associate Director
The Center for American History, SRH 2.109
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas 78713-7330
512-495-4515, FAX 512-495-4542

Archives of Mathematics and Mathematicians
Mark N. Brown, Curator of Manuscripts
The John Hay Library
Brown University Library
Providence, Rhode Island 02912

Acknowledgments: The composition of this guide drew upon publications of the Society of American Archivists and of the Center for the History of Physics.

  • What to Preserve
  • Where to Donate Material
  • Donations and Access
  • Contacts

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