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ARCHIVES Home

ARCHIVES Home

ARCHIVES  April 2006, Week 2

ARCHIVES April 2006, Week 2

Subject:

Keeping Textbooks

From:

Joe Anderson <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Joe Anderson <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 14 Apr 2006 15:09:06 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (75 lines)

I've been following the thread on "keeping textbooks" with interest, and I
would like to add a comment.  I'll begin by mentioning two publications:
Charles H. Holbrow, "Archaeology of a Bookstack: Some Major Introductory
Physics Texts of the Last 150 Years," Physics Today, March 1999, and
Frances Fitzgerald's "America Revised; History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth
Century" (1980).  Holbrow's article, which was researched in large part
here, points out that successive physics textbooks show when new ideas are
introduced into the curriculum and reflect changes in pedagogical styles in
science over time, which another historian has characterized as going
through periodic cycles from easy to rigorous and back again.  Fitzgerald's
book, which is an influential and highly critical historiography of
American history textbooks, contributed to the "textbook wars" between
traditionalists, led by then NEH chair Lynn Cheney, and revisionists in the
1980s and after.

My point in mentioning these titles is, of course, to show that perceptive
scholars have used old textbooks to help understand what goes on inside
college classrooms, a world that is usually poorly documented in college
and university archives, as Helen Samuels, Rick Teller, and others have
noted.  These books can also contribute to intellectual history; a student
recently used our old textbooks to identify a dozen different
interpretations of the physical meaning of a now fundamental mathematical
technique called Feynman Diagrams.  And in our experience, comprehensive
textbook collections in our field are hard to find.

The conflicting responses on this thread (chuck 'em out vs. keep 'em)
suggest an important distinction in how we define the nature of archives
and the work of archivists, between broad and strict constructions. Like
many college archives, the archival collection here at the Niels Bohr
Library is part of a special collection that holds a mix of materials that
document our field:  books, oral histories, records, manuscripts, etc.  As
a result it's easy for us to justify our large collection of successive
editions of textbooks in modern physics, astronomy, and allied fields.  But
I believe that archivists have a responsibility to  be aware of the larger
world of sources that document their fields and to encourage their
colleagues to preserve important sources outside the canon of archival
formats. And if they aren't successful in negotiating with librarians or
other colleagues, then they're justified in keeping especially important
collections like textbooks, at least until they can find a more enlightened
library to take them off their hands or can make sure that the works are
accessible elsewhere.

Of course it may be necessary to be selective here as elsewhere, especially
for the huge volume of materials published since the 1960s. Some professors
give us book collections that contain a large number of "inspection copies"
of textbooks that were never even opened.

Twenty years ago my predecessor, Joan Warnow-Blewett, and other archivists,
initially mostly within the sciences, developed a new approach to
identifying and collecting archival sources called documentation strategy.
A central tenet was that archivists need to work actively with records
creators, records users, and other archives in planning to document their
field. Documentation research and documentation strategy still inform our
work in trying to identify and save hard-to-preserve areas in our field
like industrial R&D.  Working with colleagues in other departments, for
example technical librarians and records managers, is also an important
part of that work.

Joe Anderson
Niels Bohr Library
Center for History of Physics
American Institute of Physics

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