The saying that MIT is good at inventing the future but poor at remembering the past is not entirely accurate, since the Institute Archives and MIT Museum both preserve and make accessible the documents and artifacts associated with MIT's history. A new project is taking Institute history one meaningful step further, by including the memories of those who actually lived the history.
"MIT grew enormously in size and expertise during and immediately after the Second World War," Chancellor Larry Bacow noted. "Some of the people responsible for that are still around, and it's important to capture for history their memories and impressions of those events." To prevent the loss of this important information, he has established a new Oral History Advisory Group co-chaired by Megan Sniffin-Marinoff, Institute archivist, and Jane Pickering, director of the MIT Museum.
Ms. Sniffin-Marinoff and Ms. Pickering believe oral histories will strengthen MIT's resources in the study of the history and wider culture of the Institute. "The MIT Archives are one of the most used archives for the history of 20th-century science and technology," said Ms. Sniffin-Marinoff. "We deal with several thousand inquiries a year from a variety of researchers, including scholars from around the world."
"Oral histories from members of the MIT community are not just important for study of the Institute itself, but for the wider study of the history of science and technology," Ms. Pickering said. "Activities at MIT have and continue to have worldwide impact; for example many of the post-World War II changes at the Institute had a major influence on the development of science and technology research and education throughout the world."
The archives already hold oral-history tapes from many MIT notables including Gordon Brown, "Docs" Draper and Edgerton, and James Killian. Other institutions have also completed extensive interviews with MIT people, including the Smithsonian Institutions' study on the early development of computing at MIT, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' project on the Rad Lab.
OTHER HISTORY PROJECTS
Other ongoing projects at MIT include the AMITA-funded "Women at MIT" program run by Associate Professor Margery Resnick of foreign languages and literatures that brings undergraduate women together with alumnae; and the "Blacks at MIT" project run by Professor Clarence Williams, ombudsperson and special assistant to the president, that includes 200 interviews with MIT alumni/ae, faculty, administrators and staff.
The Oral History Advisory Group meets twice a semester and will act as a resource for oral history projects around MIT. The group will advise departments and other groups who are considering such projects and also encourage departments and other MIT groups to consider undertaking an oral history project. "It's important that oral histories are done well to be truly useful and valued historical records, said Ms. Sniffin-Marinoff.
Other members of the group are Professor of Biology Gene Brown; Professor Philip Khoury, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Science; Professor Paul Penfield of electrical engineering and computer science; Associate Dean Robert Randolph; Professor Merritt Roe Smith, acting director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society; Virginia Steel, associate director for public services in the Libraries; and Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education Rosalind Williams. Members welcome ideas and input from the community.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 26, 2000.