June 05, 2020
In this eighth edition of the OWSD Nigeria National Chapter University of Port Harcourt Branch series of scientific communications, Juliet C. Alex-Nmecha highlights benefits of archiving.
In every sphere of life, women have always brought vital information to humanity through research and teaching. Women in science are exceptionally ready and fit as they enrol and play their part in the development of science as they put down record of happenings of various experiments and findings carried out at different point of their discoveries/findings.
Doing this, they may not have known that they have practiced archiving which is very important on our daily research routines in order to keep our research records intact for future purposes.
However, having an archive for records of the past research as it was done step by step assures a better future when such work is traced back for solution or other unforeseen circumstances, such as criticisms on work done past years in which some steps are not clear and can only be fixed when kept records are still available.
What is an Archive?
An archive is an organized collection of the noncurrent records of the activities of a business, government, organization, institution, or other corporate body, or the personal papers of one or more individuals (which is where our personal research activities fall), families, or groups, retained permanently (or for a designated or indeterminate period of time) by their originator or successor for their permanent historical, informational, or monetary value, usually in a repository managed and maintained by a trained archivists. Even without being trained as archivists we can learn to archive our records as Women in Science through lectures like this, and thus develop science further in this part of the world. (liguides.library.cofc.edu/archivalresearch).
King’s College, Cambridge, defined an archive as a collection of documents created or gathered by one person or institution and selected for long-term preservation as evidence of their activities.
One important point to note about archives is that the document may be old and used infrequently, yet it’s important that at any day, time, and period the material is available for certain clarifications.
Archives can be categorized into 3:
(1) Government archives: where you have the examples as National archives and records administration
(2) In-house archives: which is maintained by a parent institution.
(3) Collecting archives: Manuscript libraries, film archives, genealogical archives, sound archives, personal archives etc. (Mmejim, 2019).
Looking at these categories, it’s obvious we have a clear understanding about archive being a tool for all, including science and scientists. All of these according to Anne-Flore Laloe (who has been Archivist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory since 2015) have been used to advance scientific knowledge.
According to Laloe (2017), archives kept the Buccaneer’s minicomputer with a VMS 4.4 operating system and a Dec/VT 640 terminal. The Vax minicomputer was used by John Sulston and others to run the first genome mapping software, coded in Vax FORTRAN 77.
In bid to prove the usefulness of archives to science/scientists, the diary of William Dampier was found containing detailed descriptions of coastal scenes and seascapes. This diary was found in an archive and it showed he was an explorer and one-time pirate. It was also possible to gain insight into the nesting behaviour of turtles in the Caribbean in the late 17th century through this diary.
Similarly, medieval data in which recipes suggest substitutes for certain fish owing to increased prices has been used by environmental historians to theorize about fish populations at the time. These are the power of archives.
Other usefulness of archives
Archives help scientists make materials available for present and future research by collecting, preserving, and cataloguing physical and digital evidence.
Documents archived by scientists, like laboratory books or datasets, are credible and reliable sources. Through protecting authenticity, archived documents are able to prove that a past action has indeed taken place, which can be crucial in legal battles or patent disputes. On this note, many scientists have their stories to tell concerning misplaced materials leading to an inability or delay in publishing their research works.
In current scientific archives, protecting authenticity is also relevant for protecting intellectual property and managing scientific information. For example, being able to demonstrate that certain experiment was conducted during a certain timeframe and making sure that it is put in context within a larger set of material is important for demonstrating precedence or ownership of an idea.
Again, the importance of scientific archives for molecular biology in particular was brought up a decade ago by Sydney Brenner and Richard J. Roberts in a letter to Nature, who argued: "Let’s not wait until memories have faded and papers been discarded at the end of a career before deciding to save our heritage. The legacy in danger of being lost is not published record, which is preserved and made accessible through libraries and publishers, but the material that complements it: laboratory notebooks, email exchanges or prototype instruments” (in Laloe, 2017).
Herein lies the added value of archival work: it captures and preserves what not published, and how scientific discoveries come about.
Archives have impact, archives matter and it is up to us, the women in science to show people the truth of that, to give them the opportunity and benefit of what archives can do. We all, each of us, need to step forward and take action on behalf of archives, on behalf of our profession, for the benefit of our profession, for the benefit of our society.
Remember, posterity will not forgive us if all that we put together today as Women in Science are not found tomorrow by scholars coming behind us… The time is NOW.
Introduction to archival research: archival research. liguides.library.cofc.edu/archivalresearch.
King’s College, Cambridge: Introduction to Archives. www.kings.cam.ac.uk/archive-centre/introduction-to-archives
Laloe, A. (2017). Archives of and for science: archives for molecular biology preserve the heritage of science beyond the published record for future scholars. https://www.embopress.org/doi/10.15252/embr.201744733
Mmejim, I.C. (2019). Archivist and records manager. In: Archives, records and information management. A fundamental approach ‘Umuahia: Justman Publishers International.
About the author
Dr. Juliet C. Alex-Nmecha
Department of Library and Information Science
Faculty of Education
University of Port Harcourt