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Math on the Web  >  AMS—MAA Joint Archives Committee  [Updated: Jan 11, 2012]


Why Archive?

This article previously appeared in The Notices of the AMS, 40(1993): 847--9 and in FOCUS,   vol. 13, No. 4 (1993): 11--12.

The premise might seem uncontroversial: if mathematics is to have a history, resources must be available upon which to base it. But, as I hope to illustrate, historical archiving has not been as straightforwardly automatic as, for example, the archiving of computer files is supposed to be.

When civilization is set back by the destruction of a library, such as the Central University Library at Bucharest in 1989, in modern times most of the loss may consist of printed or machine-readable books and journals which effectively have their backups in other libraries and which can therefore eventually be replaced. But unpublished materials at Bucharest, as at other libraries, are rarely duplicated and distributed and thus they can never be replaced. It is these, usually paper documents--correspondence, personal notebooks, drafts, institutional records, photographs--which the historian, at least, needs. Most mathematicians naturally have a strong historical interest at least to the extent that they regard establishing precedence--who discovered what and when was it discovered--as important.

But is there a need to preserve more than publications today? Gazing upon Gauss's autograph is probably not a source of inspiration for doing mathematics. Students' notes of Hilbert's lectures are probably too out of date for mathematical purposes today. And is it anyone's business anyway to pry into personal correspondence or keep tabs on who was attending whose lectures? Some people may doubt that it is, but many mathematicians share with historians a desire to find out why and how mathematical discoveries are made, received, and taught, and, as good scientists who want the best quality evidence, are going to make use of whatever such sources of information are available.

Personal archives, like those of Gauss and Hilbert at Göttingen, as well as institutional archives, do exist and continue to be added to libraries around the world. They are deposited so that they may be looked at. Why is this and how do they get there?

We have had some experience during the past thirteen years with American archives since the Mathematical Association of America and the American Mathematical Society investigated the establishment of archives, and committees, such as ours, have tried to aid in the preservation of archival materials. Mathematicians have given a wide range of responses to the notion of archives as the following three examples from my own experience at the University of Texas at Austin illustrate.

R. H. Bing, not long after he returned to Austin, became President of the AMS and learned something about archives when a proposal was made to have the Society join the MAA in establishing a joint archives. Everett Pitcher, Secretary of the AMS at the time, has given a diplomatic account of the fate of this proposal in the chapter "Archives" in A History of the Second Fifty Years, American Mathematical Society 1939-1988  (Providence: American Mathematical Society, 1988). The AMS chose not to establish an archive at that time (they have since designated Brown University as the repository), but the affair did have the effect of informing some mathematicians about archives, their purpose and functioning. Not long afterwards Bing expressed a concern to me. He had been looking over a file containing drafts of a telegram he had proposed to write on the occasion of the rather controversial forced retirement of his teacher R. L. Moore from the University of Texas at Austin in 1969. The archival discussions had alerted him to the fact that these drafts might be looked at by someone sometime. He felt that they could be misunderstood and he ought to destroy them. I tried to argue that by doing so he was leaving open the possibility of even more inappropriate speculations about his stand or motives at that time. I also suggested that he could always add a note of explanation to the file. (I later found that this is what Bertrand Russell did in his own files which are now at McMaster University.) But I agreed that he should do whatever he felt most comfortable with. I believe he did destroy the drafts and hence they are not a part of his papers at Texas.

Also during this archival discussion Alex Rosenberg, then a member of the AMS council, expressed doubts about the desirability of saving anything at all in archives. But when we met at an archival exhibition set up for a council meeting at Texas, he told me that he had changed his mind after convincing himself of the soundness of the following argument. He was himself devoted to algebraic number theory which even many mathematicians regard as a particularly recondite field that is not relevant to much else. Nevertheless, he appreciated that mathematicians respected his interest in the field. By the same token, if there were people whose fields involved archives, the fact that he personally did not have such an interest did not entitle him to destroy archival sources. Boxes of material related to his editorship of The American Mathematical Monthly  arrived shortly afterwards for addition to the MAA archives.

Soon after the Archives for American Mathematics was established at Texas its advisory committee was informed that Emil Grosswald was wondering if anyone would be interested in his papers. I did not know Grosswald but I am told that he was a meticulously organized person who did not like loose ends. He sent some material immediately and arranged for the remainder to be bequeathed to the archives in his will. (This did come after his death in 1988.)

I suspect that none of these three mathematicians gave much weight, if any, to what motives might be attributed to them in depositing their papers. On the other hand, archives as reminders of our mortality are perhaps not surprisingly a subject which some people would prefer to avoid altogether ("Let my family take care of it.") or, on the other, a subject in which some will involve themselves with a view to affecting history. Is handing over one's papers to an archive an egocentric gesture? Is it a creation of an unseemly monument to oneself or a hubristic assumption that one's papers will be of interest to historians? Psychological motives are, I think, quite irrelevant if a larger view is taken.

For a start, what are "one's own" papers? Considering correspondence with others, shared work, mutual benefits of the teacher-student relationship, and other influences, each mathematician, and especially officers, editors, committee members, referees, and others who participate in the functions of a mathematical society or journal, or in a mathematical department of a school or university or business, is part of a larger network. Perhaps it is more egocentric to unilaterally withdraw the background record of one's part in this enterprise than to assiduously try to preserve it. The important thing seems to me to consider the possibility that archives are more than monuments to the memories of individuals or even individual institutions, and that they help form the living memory of the mathematical experience.

Whether a mathematician saves all or nothing, and, if something in between, then just what, are matters which are probably going to continue to be worked out case by case. Some idea of the sort of things that have been considered worth saving is given by Frederic Burchsted in "Sources for the History of Mathematics in the Archives of American Mathematics," A Century of Mathematics in America, Part III,  667-674 (Providence: American Mathematical Society, 1988). These can include audio and visual recordings and memorabilia (such as R. L. Moore's typewriter with mathematical symbols) as well as the more common paper documents mentioned above. There is in general not yet a danger of flooding archives with an excessive amount of material. At this point it seems more important to make an effort to counterbalance the inevitable losses which have occurred and will occur. Albert W. Tucker used to tell about a box of important files belonging to one of Princeton's well-known mathematicians that was inadvertently left in the corridor outside his office door. The next day it was discovered that the box had been picked up by the night caretaking staff and thrown out, never to be seen again. More massive disappearances have been known to occur when a department as a whole has moved to a new building.

It is easier to throw things out than to contact your local archivist (or one of the national archives) just as it is easier not to make backups of computer files. If you or someone you know wishes to consider what to archive, our committee stands ready to help with information, advice, and support.

Albert C. Lewis
lewisac@mcmail.mcmaster.ca
The AMS--MAA Joint Archives Committee


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