Category: Processing Collections

Catching up with Collections (January – February 2019)

I am processing a new accession of material from George W. Clark. Clark is a professor emeritus at MIT whose research focuses on x-ray astronomy. Clark worked closely with Bruno Rossi and was one of his doctoral students. The collection contains lab notebooks and research created by Clark, and much information about Rossi and his work. The IASC also holds Rossi’s personal archives (MC-0166).

The Clark personal archives also contain correspondence, and many papers, photographs, and reports relating to MIT’s involvement with Small Astronomy Satellite (SAS) and Orbiting Solar Observatories (OSO).

— Greta Kuriger Suiter

My work on the Hal Abelson personal archives (MC-0743) has wrapped up, and I’ve moved on to processing material from Abelson’s colleague and frequent collaborator, Gerald Sussman. Sussman is the Panasonic Professor of Electrical Engineering at MIT, where he has been involved in artificial intelligence research. His personal archives contain course notes, information on the Scheme programming language, and materials related to the creation of Sussman’s Digital Orrery.

— Chris Tanguay

We finished digitizing all the video in the oral history collection on the recombinant DNA controversy (MC-0100). Not only will this material be more accessible but also decreases risk of loss from degrading magnetic recording media like reel-to-reel tapes and Betamax. Another portion of this collection we digitized were photographs of the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA from 1975. This whole collection will be of interest to many researchers as it focuses on debates over genetic engineering experiments, a topic that has been in the news of late. These materials are not available online but are accessible in the Archives reading room during open hours. I also accessioned 13 sets of digital material, the most interesting being data about the U.S. presidential elections from the Ithiel de Sola Pool papers (MC-0440), converted from paper computer punch cards from the late 1950s/early 1960s.

Joe Carrano

For more information about the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections and to access any of the material described above, visit the IASC website or complete an Ask the Archives request.


Catching up with collections (November / December 2018)

Processing update on Irving M. London accessions

Work continues on the Irving M. London personal archives (MC-0750) and the Harvard-MIT Program in Health, Sciences, and Technology records (HST) (AC-0490). The line between faculty papers and official MIT records can be a tricky one to define. I’ve been dividing papers from London’s office into these two collections.

HST records such as committee reports, write ups about the history of the program, and course catalogs have been added to AC-0490. I’ve also added a new series to this collection titled “Office of the Director, Irving M. London files.” This series includes a set of the Director’s chronological correspondence from 1969 to 1998, committee related materials, and administrative material relating to events, personnel, and program planning.

The London personal archives (MC-0750) consists of biographical material (including CV’s and publication lists), lab notebooks, a set of alphabetical files, notes on and from symposia and travel, professional organization related materials from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM – which London was a founder of, and is now the Health and Medicine Division of The National Academies), and material relating to business and patents.

— Greta Kuriger Suiter

This means something…

It’s been a busy month in the archives, and that has meant reviewing unprocessed collections! Here’s a fun folder title from the mix.

Folder labeled extra-terrestrial life.

Search for aliens in the Bruno Rossi papers (MC-0166, Box 21).

Besides having alien encounters, I’ve also been processing new materials. In November, I added 10 record cartons of materials to the Records of Assistant Provost Doreen Morris (AC-0530). The added content consisted of budget files for FY2010-FY2016; meeting minutes of the Research Support Committee, 1998-2014; and materials related to MacVicar Day and the MacVicar Fellowships. I’ve also been continuing to work on the Hal Abelson personal archives (MC-0743).

— Chris Tanguay

Web archives metadata and digitizing DNA

I’ve been working on developing a web archiving metadata application profile, so that we can describe our web archives collections in consistent ways and open them up to the public this summer. With help from colleagues I’m refining the document and hope to make it available sometime in the new year.

I worked on a number of small requests for digitization. One interesting project has been preparing to get the open-reel video tapes from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oral History Program, oral history collection on the recombinant DNA controversy (MC-0100). Not only an important topic that deserves to be migrated from at risk media, it was a trial determining if there were duplicate tapes as they have been migrated a number of times over the years from open reel to Betamax to VHS.

Also, I continued with getting all of our digital material accessioned, having created 13 accessions in the past month and a half for both new and legacy material.

Joe Carrano


Catching up with Collections (October 2018)

This is the first of a series of posts reviewing processing activities of the past month. 

Short letter from Jerome Lettvin to Carroll "Curly" G. Bowen of the MIT Press

Short letter from Jerome Lettvin to Carroll “Curly” G. Bowen of the MIT Press

Reviewing and Processing, Processing and Reviewing

This month, I’ve been balancing reviewing materials for patron use with processing new materials to make them available for researchers.  One fun thing discovered during collection review was the “Dear Curly” letter, which is now possibly my favorite piece of correspondence I’ve seen thus far – or at least this month. It is certainly the shortest. It can be found in the Jerome Lettvin papers (MC-0525).

I’ve also been putting in time processing the Hal Abelson personal archives (MC-0743). So far, I’ve been working with a group of subject files documenting the history and people involved with computing and artificial intelligence.

— Chris Tanguay

Figuring Out Digital Provenance

Much of this month was spent trying to figure out where some of our legacy digital collections came from or when they were digitized. Which is important to know if we’re going to preserve and provide access to them! In this process, I’ve been either adding locations to existing records of collections or accessioning materials with no record. This month I accessioned 6 previously un-accessioned legacy collections.

We also continue to bring in new collections. Notable examples include two new oral histories from the Margaret MacVicar Memorial AMITA Oral History Project and the videos of the Gender/Race Imperative, the series put on by Anita Hill during her time as an MLK Scholar at MIT (2017-2018) discussing the past and present of Title IX.

— Joe Carrano

Finding Bullet Journal inspiration in collections

This upcoming IAP I’m planning to participate in a Bullet Journal workshop (tentatively planned for the afternoon of Tuesday, January 8th!). Bullet Journals combine many aspects of traditional planners and journals in a way that appeals to broad audiences that wish to increase focus, productivity, and intent in their daily living. I plan to present some examples from the Archives to show historic precedents for parts of the Bullet Journal method. Features like keys, indexes, monthly and weekly calendar layouts, hand lettering and decorations, as well as daily reflections are common parts of bullet journals and can also be found in past practices like scrapbooking, keeping a diary or journal, traditional planners, and even work notebooks such as lab notebooks.


The above example of an index and hand numbering of pages in a lab notebook is part of a new transfer of records from the office of Irving M. London, the founding director of the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST). Processing is just beginning on these records and includes many personal archives such as early lab notebooks from the 1940s to the 1960s as well as many documents from London’s time at HST.

— Greta Kuriger Suiter


Balancing Access and Privacy: The Complications of Paper Reuse

Choose Privacy Week: Big Data is Watching You #chooseprivacy
The American Library Association (ALA) has designated May 1-7, 2018 as Choose Privacy Week. In honor of this event, the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections (IASC) is sharing some of the considerations and challenges of preventing the disclosure of private information when working with personal archives and Institute records. We hope that our experience may help you learn more about the security of physical information.

Learn more about the program at the Choose Privacy Week website.

Context: Confidentiality in the Institute Archives

One of the challenges in the Institute Archives and Special Collections (IASC) is working with the confidential information we encounter while processing collections. Providing access to all archival materials is our goal, but access must be balanced with protecting the privacy of the individuals mentioned within these records. This sometimes requires information to be restricted for periods of time before it is openly accessible.

The Society of American Archivists’ (SAA) latest Core Values Statement notes that privacy is one of the fundamental principles of the archival profession. Respect for and protection of privacy is a major archival tenet and is reflected in the review and access policies of the IASC. One particularly relevant portion of the Privacy section of the SAA Core Values Statement discusses how “archivists place access restrictions on collections to ensure that privacy and confidentiality are maintained.” In order to comply with these Core Values and maintain necessary confidentiality, certain archival procedures must be undertaken to prevent the unauthorized release of data.

What Do We Mean by “Privacy”?

When we discuss maintaining privacy and confidentiality, the IASC is referring to a very specific idea of privacy. It is not about censorship, whitewashing, or hiding information; instead, it is about protecting certain types of information. (see: What Needs Protecting?) IASC access policies are informed by Institute policy and by state and federal laws (e.g., HIPAA, FERPA, 201 CMR 17.00).

So, What Does This Mean for Our Collections?

Thesis title page with redacted signatures

Thesis title page with redacted signatures from DSpace. (

For many of our collections, we may not know if restricted information is present, and will need to review materials before they can be used by researchers. The review process involves looking at collections to see if there are any materials that are restricted by MIT and government access policies. Access restrictions are generally lifted after 20 years for Institute records, 50 years for MIT Corporation records, or 75 years for student, legal, or personnel records. If only a portion of a record is restricted, we might redact the original so researchers have access to the open material, but not the restricted information (such as a social security number). To redact documents, we first photocopy the original document, use a marker to black out the restricted information on the copy, and then create a new photocopy to ensure none of the restricted information is visible. The original document is also kept separately in a restricted folder. The downside to redacting materials is that it is a time-consuming process, and may delay researcher access. Our other choice for managing restricting material is to separate the restricted materials by placing them into a closed access folder until the term of restriction is over.

Real-life Complications

During the initial processing of accessions (groups of documents that have been donated or transferred to the IASC by a person or office), we sometimes find sensitive pieces of information on the backs of print-outs as a result of someone reusing paper. For example, we might encounter lecture notes on one side of a piece of paper and medical records on the reverse. This scenario complicates the decisions archivists make about how we provide access to researchers to these specific documents.

In reviewing records, we have sometimes found sensitive documents treated as scrap paper. These have included:

  • Student transcripts (FERPA restriction)
  • Bank and investment statements (201 CMR 17.00 restriction)
  • Cancelled checks (201 CMR 17.00 restriction)
  • Medical records (HIPAA restriction)

What Can I Do Now to Prevent Privacy Issues Later?

Before you consider using the blank side of a sheet of paper, think about the information your scrap paper may be carrying. Does it contain personally identifiable information? Is it disclosing information about a student’s academic record or an individual’s health? If you are interested in learning how you can protect your personal documents, check out the FTC website on keeping your information secure. A good rule is to destroy financial and other personal documents as soon as you no longer need them. A suggested plan for personal data retention can be found at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. For proper handling of MIT records, see Policies & Procedures sections 11.0 – Privacy and Disclosure of Personal Information and 13.0 – Information Policies.

Tell Me More…

If you want to read more about the unintended consequences of document reuse, check out the following articles.

Mattson, Rachel. “Queer Histories, Videotape, and the Ethics of Reuse.” The Center for the Humanities (blog), December 18, 2017.

“Macy’s Parade: ‘Shredded Police Papers in Confetti.’” BBC News, November 25, 2012, sec. US & Canada.

“Report: ‘Confetti’ Dropped During Giants Parade Contained Confidential Information.” CBS New York (blog), February 8, 2012.

Allison Blanning and Chris Tanguay

Hazardous Sharps: Page Fasteners of the Late 19th Century

A variety of page fasteners removed from the Allen Hazen papers.

A variety of page fasteners removed from the Allen Hazen papers.

The image above contains a sampling of the fasteners used on the correspondence of Allen Hazen between 1897 and 1901. Preservation work was undertaken on the box to folder materials that were stored loose in a record carton. While processing collections, we will often leave staples or paperclips in situ. In this case, many of these fasteners were damaging to the materials, so they were removed. The most common fastener used in this particular collection was the straight pin, several dozen were removed in various states of oxidation (see example below).

Image of a straight pin used to attach papers. (MC-0430, box 1)

Image of a straight pin used to attach papers. (MC-0430, box 1)

— Chris Tanguay

New Accession in the Tech Community Women records (AC 320)

A new accession (2017-092) of material has been added to the Tech Community Women records (AC 320).

The group was established in 1922 as the Technology Dames to help the wives of MIT students feel like a part of the MIT community. It began under the sponsorship of the Technology Matrons, a faculty wives organization. The Dames sponsored social events, programs, and charity projects, including banquets, dances, instruction in international cooking, and craft sales. In 1972, the group changed its name to the Technology Wives Organization. Their membership was open to the wives of MIT students and teaching fellows and married female students and teaching fellows. It would later expand to include all female students and employees and the wives of students and employees. In 1983, the group changed its name again to the Tech Community Women to better reflect their membership.

New Directions, the newsletter of the Technology Wives Organization, drafts

Drafts of “New Directions,” the newsletter of the Technology Wives Organization, cut and pasted together. The December 1982 issue includes a solicitation for new names for the organization.

The new accession consists of approximately 2 cubic feet of material, with the bulk of the material dating between 1979 and 1986. Materials include yearbooks (comprehensive listings of each year’s activities), New Directions newsletters, president’s reports, reports of the second vice president, International Cooking Group reports and cookbooks, and Foreign Wives Committee reports.


Booklets produced by the International Cooking Group featuring recipes from their members.

– Chris Tanguay

Recently Processed: Knight Science Journalism Program records (AC 552)

Over the summer, the IASC received a new accession of materials from the Knight Science Journalism Program. This program was originally founded in 1983 as the Vannevar Bush Fellowship Program in the Public Understanding of Science and Technology. It was created for mid-career journalists in all media reporting in the areas of science, technology, medicine, and the environment. Fellows spend an academic year at MIT to improve their personal understanding of science research. The broader goal of the program is to improve public understanding of science .

Larry Gonick caricature of Victor McElheny as a knight

Larry Gonick caricature of Program Director Victor McElheny as a knight.

While the Archives had previously received 2 cubic feet of material, it had only been described in aggregate. Materials in the collection are now described at a folder level, and are arranged into four series: Records of the Director, Program Records, Photographs and Drawings, and Scrapbooks.

Materials in the collection include correspondence, writings on science reporting, promotional materials, course materials, evaluations, publications, photographs, and scrapbooks. They were created between 1965 and 2014, with the bulk of the material dating between 1983 and 2012. Much of the material documents the founding and funding of the fellowship program. Materials related to fundraising are restricted for 75 years by Institute policy.

One fun find in the collection was a signed photograph of Ethel Merman filed away in a folder of correspondence.

Signed photograph of Ethel Merman filed amongst correspondence.

Signed photograph of Ethel Merman filed amongst correspondence.

– Chris Tanguay