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Vol. 27 No. 4
July-August 2005

IUPAC History Preserved:
Processing Addenda to the Records of IUPAC

by Andrew Mangravite

The Chemical Heritage Foundation’s (CHF’s) collection represents the material culture of the chemical and molecular sciences, technologies, and industries. Included in the collection are chemical instruments and apparatus, historical artifacts, organizational and personal archives, memorabilia, and works of art relating to the history of chemistry. Every new collection that CHF processes presents challenges unique to that collection. In general, organizational records, such as those of IUPAC, are thought to be easier to process because they possess a preexisting and functional order. Archivists have long regarded this internal order as sacrosanct—the one reliable guide to the raison d’etre of the records.

Former IUPAC Secretary General Ted Becker (1996–2003) and Andrew Mangravite (CHF archivist) reviewing IUPAC historical documents preserved by the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

CHF recently completed the processing of IUPAC’s records from 1965 to about 1995 (referred to hereafter as the IUPAC Addenda). CHF had already received and processed an earlier accretion of IUPAC records covering the period 1919 to about 1965. The more recent records had been boxed at the Secretariat’s offices when they were in Oxford, UK, and shipped to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. The boxes containing the records were sequentially numbered, which should have made for a relatively easy unpacking job. Unfortunately, there was a queue for processing collections and by the time the IUPAC Addenda were reached, that original sequential order was long gone—the casualty of several on-site moves and a period of off-site storage.

The first order of business then was to reconstruct the shipping order. The off-site storage facility had utilized pallets and no attempt had been made to preserve the numerical order of the boxes. This meant that the pallets had to be emptied one by one and, after determining that the original sequential order was in fact gone, the boxes were opened and their contents shelved. A number of factors kept the process from collapsing into chaos. The records had been stored in relatively sturdy document boxes with their contents identified on the spine of the boxes, so it was feasible to treat them as “big books.” In addition, the original shipping list had been preserved, which served as the guide to recreating the internal order of the collection. Also, whenever possible during the unpacking phase, like was grouped with like, so that Analytical Chemistry Division records were kept on one section of shelving, Clinical Chemistry Division on another, and Executive Committee on yet another. Once they were unpacked, the records occupied six entire rows of shelving in the temporary storage area. Access to so much empty shelving—not a normal occurrence—was the third factor that allowed this large amount of material (300 cubic feet on pallets) to be successfully sorted.

Once the cartons were emptied and the document boxes shelved, the actual processing began. The shipping list revealed that the files had been prepared for shipment in their organizational order beginning with the Council records, then proceeding to the Bureau, the Executive Committee, and so on. Broadly speaking, the first portion of the addenda cover administrative functions of IUPAC, while the latter parts contain the records of the various divisions and are more science oriented.

Within the administrative records, one sub-series of the files labeled “Executive Secretary files” turned out to be a key to gaining intellectual control over the administrative side of the collection. (The very size and complexity of the collection made the establishment of intellectual control a daunting task, especially for an “outsider.”) Part of the IUPAC Executive Secretary’s job was to compile loose-leaf binder “digests” of pertinent information for Council, Bureau, and Executive Committee meetings. These digests survive for the period 1961 to 1989 and serve as excellent guides to exactly what was on IUPAC’s mind. They provide an excellent starting point for scholars interested in unraveling the Union’s inner workings and help pinpoint the development of administrative trends.

The Physical Condition of the Collection
Although some of the letter boxes had been banged about a bit, the contents were, for the most part in excellent condition (with one exception that is explained below). One aspect of the physical processing of a document collection is the removal of metallic paper clips and staples. As you can well imagine, in almost 50 years of activity, IUPAC’s various office staffs generated tens of thousands of staples, and these had to be removed. The fact that many of the documents were file copies on a very thin paper complicated the matter. Staples had to be carefully pried open and removed, then replaced with archival-quality plastic clips.

On a more serious note, the Archives of the Committee on Teaching of Chemistry had apparently been salvaged from a fire at some point. Aside from being left in unsightly condition, there was also a question of potential contamination from fire-suppressing chemicals. Since education is a major portion of CHF’s mission, it was untenable to discard altogether the archival records of a standing committee dedicated to improving the quality of chemical education. After consultation with the senior archivist, a processing strategy was settled upon whereby only the most badly damaged items were discarded outright. Fortunately, these were a very small portion of the whole. Documents that were suspected of contamination were reproduced on archival quality paper with the suspect originals then discarded, while those that were simply unsightly were processed as is.

Among the items discovered in the IUPAC archives was a letter signed by Prince P. Ginori-Conti, an early experimenter in the field of thermodynamic chemistry, and as it turned out, also chairman of the IUPAC Finance Committee during the 1920s and 1930s.

What to Keep and What to Toss?
For many readers, the term “de-accessioning material” probably calls up images of a crazed archivist sitting next to a mini-dumpster on wheels. The earliest archival theorists—Muller, Feith, Fruin, Jenkinson—were dealing with documents that were hundreds of years old, one-of-a-kind, and irreplaceable. Naturally the notion of anything being expendable was anathema to
them, and they theorized accordingly. The modern archivist of a contemporary, or even a near-contemporary administrative collection, is dealing with a paper avalanche. Everything cannot be saved, and the scholars who use CHF’s collections would not want everything to be saved. An “editing” process must take place, whereby the information is packed and put into an accessible-form. This is the “value-added” aspect of archival processing, without which, the job could be done by an idiot-savant who happens to be good at removing staples. But at the end of processing, the greater part of most collections, and certainly the greater part of the IUPAC records, are preserved. If a document was significant it was saved. If a document was not in itself significant but contributed to the overall “story” of the collection, it was saved. Correspondence on seemingly trivial matters frequently allows us to preserve “the administrative mindset” of the organization from which it was created.

Once the Division files were processed, it became apparent that CHF now possessed a veritable “chemical reference encyclopedia.” This was because IUPAC concerned itself with all aspects of chemistry and the divisions tried to keep abreast of all current developments. Familiar patterns emerged: the tug of war between theoretical and applied chemistry, the emergence of transformative technologies that frequently shifted the focus of entire divisional subcommittees and commissions (as when the relatively mundane Fermentation Industries Section of the Applied Chemistry Division was transformed into the Biotechnology Commission).

The recent addenda to the IUPAC Archives covers the period when Dr. Mo Williams served as executive secretary. He is pictured holding a silver salver presented to him in August 1997 after 29 years of service. The salver is engraved with the signatures of the 15 IUPAC presidents under whom he served.

Although it initially appeared that this material would be relatively “new” (1965 onward), it was discovered that the latter portions of the collection, dealing with such topics as National Adhering Organizations and “general files” often contained much older material than was anticipated. For instance, a letter box marked “To be sorted,” contained press clippings from a 1956 conference, but beneath that, were records of the Finance Committee going back to the earliest years of IUPAC. These were actually saved because the contents smelled older than 1956 and a quick shuffle through them disclosed the signature of Prince P. Ginori-Conti, an early experimenter in the field of thermodynamic chemistry. (With the volume of papers that needed to be evaluated, the “10-second rule” had to be invoked and frequently a random phrase, a familiar-sounding name, or a florid signature was all that stood between a more careful evaluation and the discard pile.)

As a result of these “lost” files being found, CHF has an almost unbroken series of records from the Finance Committee, including those covering the very trying years of the Great Depression. Clearly, gaps remain in the records of IUPAC, and the contents of the main collection dealing with the formative years is much spottier than the addenda, but it seems safe to say that a significant portion of the achievements of a remarkable organization have been saved, preserved, and made accessible to scholars for generations to come.

Andrew Mangravite <[email protected]> is processing archivist at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, and is particularly engaged in the “IUPAC project.”

The Chemical Heritage Foundation is an Associated Organization of IUPAC. It serves the community of the chemical and molecular sciences, and the wider public, by treasuring the past, educating the present, and inspiring the future.

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