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Libraries' archives are rich source of information on MIT history

Megan Sniffin-Marinoff, the recently appointed Institute archivist, is enthusiastic about the MIT Libraries' Archives holdings and how they can benefit planning for new directions for teaching and research at MIT.

"This is a fantastic collection," Ms. Sniffin-Marinoff said. "It is one of the most important academic archives in the country because of its strong holdings from the 20th century, bridging two centuries in a very rich way. What many don't always appreciate is that much of MIT history is so very central to understanding not just the history of science or technology or even higher education, obvious strengths of our holdings, but of American history. The MIT Archives are an exemplary collection with enormous potential for a variety of uses."

Ms. Sniffin-Marinoff came to MIT from Simmons College, where she was assistant professor and director of archives programs at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. She is a founding member of the Academy of Certified Archivists, has served for many years as a grant reviewer for the National Archives, and has lectured, written and consulted widely in her field.

The primary purpose of the Archives is to document the history of MIT. More broadly, the material in the collection shows how education and research at the Institute has evolved over the years.

The service provided by the MIT Archives goes far beyond the ability to provide answers to simple historical questions, although that's certainly one of its functions. Frequently a staff or faculty member is interested in learning how and why a program was initiated and how it developed over the years. This knowledge is valuable when changes are being made in a teaching or research program, when a new program is being developed or for the orientation of new personnel.

There are many other uses for Archives material, such as providing information for a speech, publication or any project that requires background on the Institute, its programs and its people. The Archives is also heavily used for in-depth historical research by scholars from around the world.

The Archives hold more than 13 million items. (An item is one object, such as a letter, report, pamphlet, map or videocassette.) Items are grouped into about 1,000 collections, which include the official records of MIT, personal papers and records of the work of professional organizations with a strong MIT association. The Archives serves as its own publisher and develops a variety of finding tools to aid access to information sought.

The MIT Archives Selective Guide to the Collections lists and describes specific collections. Over the coming months, more specific data about the holdings will be available on the Archives web site. Many collections are the records from offices of MIT presidents, deans, academic departments, laboratories and other organizations. Others deal with a wide variety of topics, such as:

  • Records of the Association of MIT Alumnae (AMITA) from 1900-80
  • Papers of Vannevar Bush covering the period from 1921-74
  • Course materials and class notebooks from students at various times in the Institute's history
  • Transcripts of lectures delivered in the first MIT Black Studies course in the spring of 1969
  • Press releases of the News Office from 1920-81
  • An oral history collection on the emerging recombinant DNA phenomenon from 1975-78
  • Records of the Student Action Coordinating Committee from 1965-1976
  • Records of international educational collaboratives such as the Kampur Indo-American Program

Archives staff members handle several calls a day from people interested in donating materials. Donations have ranged from one or two boxes to a large collection of 500 boxes. Calls from those wishing to donate typically come on behalf of Institute offices and individuals, usually faculty or senior administrators.

Collections of faculty papers are very helpful for scholars studying educational processes and trends and for those writing biographies. When materials are donated to the Archives, individual arrangements are made if limitation on access is desired.

Ms. Sniffin-Marinoff looks forward to hearing from members of the MIT community about their information needs and about donations of material. She feels strongly that archivists have to be on top of everything new; they are not only concerned with the past and they cannot work in isolation.

"The MIT Archives is a reflection of a vital segment of 19th- and 20th-century America. As MIT grows in its global perspective, the Archives will more and more reflect world developments," she said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 3, 1999.

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