Friday, September 24, 2010

Digitising the archives: the Wellcome Library approach

Like most research libraries and archives repositories, the Wellcome Library is currently planning to digitise quantities of its unique holdings and provide remote access to the digitised content over the Web. Among the many challenges that such plans present, perhaps the most fundamental is the decision what to digitise, or where to start - with almost limitless potential in the holdings but limited resources what do we prioritise?

Some institutions have chosen to select their most popular collections, others those for which they can obtain commercial funding (which are often the same of course). The Wellcome Library has opted for a thematic approach: we aim to digitise a substantial proportion of our holdings by looking at various broad subject areas and creating integrated online resources to support research and discovery in those fields. Since digitisation and the internet enable the creation of virtual online archives by providing a single point of access to widely dispersed content, we intend to explore the integration of relevant content from the holdings of other institutions into the online resources that we eventually create.

The first theme, ‘Modern Genetics and its Foundations’, will focus on the development of the science of biological inheritance from the later 19th century onwards, and the growing understanding of its role in human health and disease during the 20th century. Arguably, this will represent the fundamental meta-narrative of modern medicine; the gradual integration of genetics into the clinic. Content relevant to this theme ranges from relatively early documentation on the basic science of heredity and on the study of inherited diseases, to material on the elucidation of the molecular basis of inheritance in the mid-20th century and the subsequent development of genomics.

Preparations for developing the theme are underway: over 600 boxes of personal and institutional papers held by the Wellcome Library’s archives department will be imaged to provide the substrate or bedrock of the theme. These include:

  • the papers of Francis Crick (1916-2004), molecular biologist and Nobel Prize winner
  • the notebooks of Fred Sanger (b.1918), biochemist and double Nobel Prize winner
  • the papers of Arthur Mourant (1904-1994), haematologist and geneticist
  • the papers of Hans Greuneberg (1907-1982), geneticist
  • the records of the MRC Blood Group Unit , 1935-95.

This material will form a core of documentation on some of the most important research on the theoretical underpinnings of the biology of inheritance, on genetics and gene sequencing in post-war Britain. To this we will add:

  • the papers of Sir Ernst Chain (1906-1979), biochemist and Nobel Prize winner
  • the papers of Norman Heatley (1911-2004), biochemist
  • the papers of Sir Peter Medawar (1915-1987), biologist and Nobel Prize winner
  • the papers of Dame Honor Fell (1900-1980), medical scientist.

Although more loosely connected with the theme, this material will help to document the contemporary scientific, intellectual and institutional context in which genetics and allied research took place.

More archival collections will be added as they become available for digitisation in future years. The selected collections will be digitised ‘cover to cover’ so their historical research potential will not be limited exclusively to questions around the given theme. We do, however, feel that the thematic approach both helps us address the issue of prioritisation in a more creative way than merely responding to perceived current user demand, and provides more potential for eventual integration of third-party content and thus the development of online virtual archives. It is in the elimination not only of geographical distance for the current researcher but also of the vagaries of historical dispersal of papers that the technologies of digitisation really come into their own.

Author: Richard Aspin, Head of Research and Scholarship, Wellcome Library

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