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MIT to House New Dibner Institute

MIT becomes home this fall to the newly established Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology and the Burndy Library, one of the world's premier private collections of historical scientific books, manuscripts, instruments and works of art.

Dedication ceremonies will be held on Thursday, October 22, at the headquarters of the Dibner Institute and Burndy Library in E-56, a building newly remodeled by MIT and the Dibner Institute, at 38 Memorial Drive, next to the Sloan School of Management.

The creation of the research center and the relocation from Norwalk, Conn. of the Burndy Library, which will serve as a scholarly resource for the institute, were made possible by a gift from the Dibner Fund of Wilton, CT, a private foundation headed by David Dibner. The research institute was established as a consortium of MIT, Boston University, Brandeis University and Harvard University, with MIT as the host university.

The Dibner Institute will be governed by a board of trustees chaired by David Dibner, president of the Dibner Fund. The operation of the Institute will be shared by Evelyn Simha, founding executive director, and Jed Buchwald, who joins MIT in the dual post of director of the institute and the first Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology. Christine Ruggere, curator of special collections at the University of Pennsylvania Library, has been appointed librarian of the Burndy Library.

The MIT provost, Professor Mark S. Wrighton, who played a key role in establishing the Dibner Institute and Burndy Library at MIT, said all the consortium members have long-standing commitments to the study of the history of science and technology. "Their work in this area will now be greatly enhanced by the presence of visiting scholars who will be in residence at the new center, and by various programs to be sponsored by the Dibner Institute," he said. "I am especially pleased that the Dibner family has made such an extraordinary commitment and has chosen MIT as its principal partner."

Professor Philip S. Khoury, dean of MIT's School of Humanities and Social Science, said the arrangement provides the basis "for what should become the world's most important institute for the study of the history of science and technology."

The affiliation agreement between the Dibner Fund and MIT provides for a number of graduate fellowships and also establishes the Bern Dibner Chair in the History of Science and Technology, in memory of David Dibner's father. The late Bern Dibner, whose profound interest in the history of science and technology inspired him to assemble the Burndy Library, was an inventor, bibliophile, engineer and businessman who founded the Burndy Corporation, a multinational manufacturer of electrical connectors.

Once fully operational, the institute will host up to 15 visiting scholars and post-doctoral fellows for varying periods, as well as a number of graduate students at the dissertation-writing stage, for whom the institute will provide fully equipped offices and generous fellowships for a year's stay at the institute.

The primary goal of the Dibner Institute is to foster and disseminate outstanding scholarship in the history of science and technology and allied fields and to help pursue new directions in these fields.

"The Dibner Institute is a research center where invited scholars from around the world can do advanced work at the frontiers of the discipline," said Dr. Simha. "Scholars invited to pursue research at the Dibner will also give colloquia and lectures to present the results of their latest work."

Although this first year is a "transition year of establishment," Professor Buchwald said, the Dibner Institute will run two international workshops in the spring. One workshop, organized by Professor Merritt Roe Smith, director of the Program in Science, Technology and Society, concerns the European roots of the American system of manufacturing. The other, convened by Professor Buchwald, concentrates on late 19th century British electro-technology, probing in particular its links with the physical laboratory and comparing it with contemporary development in German industry and research. "We intend both workshops to result in books that will redefine these subjects," said Professor Buchwald.

Dr. Simha received her BA from Brandeis University and PhD in French literature of the Enlightenment from Yale University. She was a member of the faculty at Tufts University and Brandeis University where she taught French and comparative literature and initiated the Brandeis program in linguistics, before serving as executive assistant to the president of Brandeis from 1979 to 1987. She was governor of the Brandeis University Press and worked closely with Bern Dibner on the establishment of the Vito Volterra Center at Brandeis.

Professor Buchwald, whose appointment at MIT is in the History Faculty and in the Program in Science, Technology and Society, received his BA from Princeton University and PhD in the history of science from Harvard. Since 1974, he has been in Canada at the University of Toronto's Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, serving as director in 1991.

Professor Buchwald's research interests concentrate on the history of physics since the 17th century. He has published numerous articles as well as two books-From Maxwell to Microphysics and The Rise of the Wave Theory of Light, both with the University of Chicago Press. He has recently completed a book on Heinrich Hertz's production of electric waves, and edited a book of essays,The Autonomy of Experiment/The Sovereignty of Practice, that derive from a conference he organized with Ian Hacking in 1990 at Toronto.

The initial exhibit at the Burndy Library, "Treasures of the Burndy Library," will open in conjunction with the dedication ceremonies on October 22. The library's collections will be housed in a new vault specially constructed behind E-56. Functioning both as a library and gallery, the Burndy Library's quarters on the ground floor of the MIT building also include exhibition space, a reading room, work area, catalogue area and a seminar room.

The second floor of the building holds the Dibner Institute's administrative offices, a major conference room, lounge, meeting room and offices for visiting scholars and graduate and post-doctoral fellows.

Bern Dibner, who emigrated from the Ukraine as a child and became an electrical engineer, began collecting scientific artifacts on a visit to Europe in 1936, where he had gone to pursue a growing interest in the life and works of Leonardo da Vinci.

It was the start of a life-long fascination with da Vinci and other great scientists that led to years of serious study as well as the acquisition of materials related to the history of science and technology. When his collection overflowed the storage and display space available at his company's headquarters in Norwalk, he had a separate library building constructed just across from the corporate offices. Mr. Dibner, the author of many noted books and essays, continued to work at the Burndy Library until his death in 1988 at the age of 90.

In fact, the library did not hold all that he had collected; as it grew, Dr. Dibner decided to share portions of his collections with other institutions to encourage the study of the history of science and technology. In the 1960s, he donated a thousand works from his Leonardo da Vinci collection to Brandeis. In 1976, as a Bicentennial gift, he gave more than 11,000 rare books, manuscripts and other items to the Smithsonian Institution to express his gratitude to the nation for the opportunities it had given him. In 1981, Dr Dibner established the Vito Volterra Center at Brandeis where the library of the great Italian scientist and inventor is open to the international community of scholars.

By the time of his death, the collection of scientific treasures in the Norwalk library had attracted scholars and visitors from throughout the nation and the world. But it was Dr. Dibner's wish that the collection be moved to the Boston area, where he believed it would be used even more vigorously than it had been in Norwalk, according to his son, David.

"As a scholar in the field of the history of science and technology," noted Mr. Dibner, "my father recognized the importance of perpetuating and expanding the almost sixty years of published scholarship generated at the Burndy Library. He announced the creation of the Dibner Institute, to include the Burndy Library, just one month before he died in 1988."

Priceless holdings coming to MIT include a 14th century monastery bell mounted on a bearing designed by Leonardo da Vinci, notes of Albert Einstein, a copy of a work by Euclid printed in 1482, a prototype of a battery created by the Italian scientist, Volta, a page with handwritten corrections, from Darwin's Origin of the Species, and a letter from Galileo describing the invention of a magnetic clock. And these form only a tiny portion of the Burndy Library collection, described as "varied and beautiful" by Dr. Simha, executive director of the Dibner Institute.

"With the establishment of the Dibner Institute and the Burndy Library, we now have in place a great national and international resource in the field of the history of science and technology," she said. "The library itself has always been of enormous value to scholars in this field, and it becomes even more accessible to them now as part of the Dibner Institute at MIT, at the center of the complex of major universities, museums and scholarly institutions in the Boston area.

"Of course, the exhibitions and displays are open to the entire community. And we shall encourage visits by individuals and groups in the spirit of Dr. Dibner, who took as great a delight in giving tours of the library, to school children as well as to scholars, as he did in collecting the treasures and writing the books that brought the development of science and technology to life for so many other students."

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 7).

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