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MIT Libraries receive papers of distinguished linguist, philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky

Significant collection spans a long and distinguished career dating to 1955.
Institute Professor emeritus Noam Chomsky
Institute Professor emeritus Noam Chomsky

MIT’s Libraries were recently chosen to be the stewards of the personal archives of noted linguist, political activist and Institute Professor emeritus Noam Chomsky. The significant collection spans a long and distinguished career, beginning when Chomsky joined MIT in 1955 in the Research Laboratory of Electronics, through his years as a professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, then as Institute Professor.

Often referred to as “the father of modern linguistics,” Chomsky revolutionized the field of linguistics and paved the way for transformational grammar and universal grammar. His book Syntactic Structures (1957) was considered groundbreaking. He also made significant contributions to the fields of psychology, cognitive science, philosophy of language and philosophy of mind.

“It’s fitting that Professor Chomsky’s papers will remain at MIT as a resource for future generations of scholars,” MIT President Susan Hockfield said. “He revolutionized the way we think about the linguistic sciences and the cognitive mechanisms of language acquisition, and his ideas in many realms have had profound influence on scholarship and public discourse here at MIT and worldwide.”

Over the years, Chomsky has been awarded numerous prizes, including the Kyoto Prize in 1988 and the MIT Killian Award for the 1991-92 academic year. Most recently, he won the Sydney Peace Prize in 2011. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

“Over the last 50 years, Noam Chomsky has not only created the building blocks of linguistic theory and understanding, but has built a remarkable and unique Department of Linguistics that has nurtured several generations of linguists who have taken their MIT experience into and across the globe,” MIT Dean of Humanities Deborah Fitzgerald said. “It is wonderful that Noam’s papers, which span this long period of growth and development, will be available to scholars for many years to come.”

The collection also reflects Chomsky’s political activism and outspoken support for freedom of speech and social justice. He was once quoted as saying, “If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all” (The Guardian (U.K.), Nov. 23, 1992).

He has authored numerous works on the topic, including “American Power and the New Mandarins” (1969), “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media” (1988), “Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy” (2006) and “Hopes and Prospects” (2010).

The addition of Chomsky’s personal archives, and a large portion of his personal library, augments a small existing collection of Chomsky’s papers already in the care of the MIT Libraries’ Institute Archives.

“With this addition, the collection will be a complete archival resource that will provide researchers with unique insight into Professor Chomsky’s thinking, and the development of the field of linguistics, as well as his views on significant issues in social activism from post-World War II through [today],” MIT Institute Archivist Tom Rosko said.

Staff from the MIT Libraries and Institute Archives and Special Collections are in the beginning stages of transferring material to the Archives. Initial work in organizing the Chomsky collection will occur this year, with additional work on improving access to the collection — including online access to portions of it — continuing over the next several years. When the work is done, scholars will have unprecedented access to an enormous depth and breadth of material from one of the world’s most renowned linguists and top intellectual minds.

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