The IUSSI archive


Archivist's report 2022

Christopher K Starr, Archivist

A PDF version may be downloaded here.

In 1990 the North American Section of the IUSSI added to its set of officers an Archivist with the mandate to ensure the preservation of documents and other materials relevant to the development of our discipline.  The first archivist was William L. Nutting (1922-1992), after which it passed to the present archivist, Christopher K. Starr.

From the outset the Archive has maintained a high-minded disregard for sectional and geographic boundaries.  Accordingly, it was a natural process when it was changed into an IUSSI-wide facility by decision of the 2002 congress in Sapporo.         

The Archive comprises both documents and images relevant to the development of our discipline from earliest times to the present.  The documents are mostly on paper, although in recent years new acquisitions have been increasingly in electronic form.  The paper documents include a substantial mass of correspondence between colleagues.          

In addition, I have been very much interested in autobiographical accounts of leading colleagues, whether these are written with professional colleagues or family in mind.  Recall that Charles Darwin originally wrote his autobiography at the request of this children, and it was only afterward realized that it would be of interest to a much wider readership.  Similarly, Elizabeth A. McMahan (1924-2009) wrote and illustrated for the delectation of her nieces a wonderful full-length autobiography, a copy of which the Archive is very pleased to have.

The Archive has given some attention to the preservation of scientific correspondence and other personal papers of leading colleagues.  I have not especially wanted to acquire this material for our files in particular and, in fact, would prefer that it go to larger repositories more centrally situated for the use of scholars.  However, it has been a matter of concern to ensure that materials of possible value to scholars not be lost simply because it is no one’s particular business to ensure their preservation.  For example, after the passing of Leo Pardi (1915-1990) I learned that his personal papers appeared to be scattered here and there.   The Italian Section of the IUSSI has now turned its attention to trying to collect and deposit them in a permanent repository.

Valuable as they are, in the digital age the permanent deposition of personal papers is rendered increasingly irrelevant by the fact that such materials (especially correspondence) tend simply not to be generated.  That is, scientists no longer print and file copies of letters to/from colleagues.  So, how are immediate accounts of discussions and research to be preserved?   The core approach, I believe, lies in identifying episodes, projects and institutions in the present period and near past that seem likely to merit narrative accounts and encouraging those who were involved to record them.  In recent years I have had some success in doing just this.  I contact a particular colleague somewhat like this: “You were intimately involved in … and over the years you have undoubtedly told the story many times in conversation of how it unfolded.  I would like you now to tell the same story with your fingers on the keyboard for the permanent record.  You type about half as fast as you talk, so how hard can that be?”

In the coming period I expect to make such an approach to a number of colleagues that I know have a tight, relevant and engaging story to tell to enrich the Archive.

The photo archive is built from two main sources.  Many living and recent colleagues are well represented in the Internet, where a search for images yields good material.  Where this is not the case, I have in many cases written to colleagues to complain that the Archive does not have images of them of the quality that we would like.  I am especially interested in photos showing the individuals at work in the field or lab, as well as photos from particular periods of high relevance to their research careers.  In addition, there is a much smaller number of photos that I took at meetings.  Each of these endeavours continues, and as the Archive gains better images it will be suitable to cull some earlier ones.

It has been suggested that the entire photo archive should be made available on the Internet.  I do not favour this, as many images are redundant or of indifferent quality.  However, a substantial searchable selection should certainly be made available in this way.  After going through a further phase of addition and editing, it is proposed to prepare an extensive annotated selection together with IUSSI webmaster David Nash.

The Archive’s physical aspect has recently undergone a major change.  It was for a long time a matter of concern that the location of the physical materials in a filing cabinet here in Trinidad greatly restricts their accessibility and is dependent on the continued good health of one individual.  Accordingly, it was decided last year to move the Archive to the University of Copenhagen, where it will enjoy a much improved permanence and accessibility.

This report is written before the IUSSI’s international congress in San Diego, where the position of Archivist will be on the agenda.  I am willing to stand for re-election, but in time it will be appropriate to pass this office to someone younger than me (b. 1949) and preferably with a more central institutional base.  This is just one part of the overall modernizing of the Archive to serve scholarship in the history of our discipline.

Christopher K. Starr
Caura Village, Trinidad & Tobago; ckstarr (at) gmail.com


Koos Boomsma, unpacking the international archive in Copenhagen on its arrival from Trinidad.



Christopher K Starr, Archivist

Scientists tend to take a keen interest in the history of their own disciplines, and we are no exception. The IUSSI archive exists to ensure the preservation of materials relevant to our own living past. These fall into five more or less distinct categories.

1. Institutional/organizational documents

Most institutional history is unrelievedly dreary, but there are exceptions. Some institutions - most notably the IUSSI itself - are so closely tied to the development of the discipline as to form a key part of it substance. The archive is not yet organized to form a complete repository of sectional bulletins and newsletters, but this is on the agenda. The best is is probably a digital library for online access.

In some cases, a department, institution or lab with a substantial focus on social insects has a distinct and interesting history (e.g. the Kansas Bee Lab). If you have materials relevant to such an organization, I would like to hear from you.

In addition, the archive is very much interested in syllabuses and outlines of university courses substantially devoted to social insects. If you teach or have taught such a course, please send me the descriptive materials, whether on paper or over the internet.

2. Existing biographical materials

I have compiled a list of about 750 contributors to insect sociobiology from Aristotle to the present time, to serve as a checklist in seeking (auto)biographical materials (The plan is to make this available online, following expected improvements arising out of the latest congress).  Some individuals (e.g. Bob Trivers) are already so thoroughly profiled that the archive's job is reduced to formulating a selected bibliography. Most, however, receive much less coverage, so the archive has some work to do.

In the recent period I have written to many colleagues on my list to request such things as news reports on their persons and research programmes.  Curricula vitarum, while quite bloodless, are also a good source of public facts.  Please feel free to mail or transmit such materials to me in advance of a direct request.

I believe in autobiography.  In my view, everyone should at least once in her/his life write an account of that life for others' edification.  Scientists sometimes write rather substantial autobiographies at the request of their own families, only later considering that these may interest a much wider readership.  That is how we came to have Charles Darwin's autobiography.  Our own Betty McMahan wrote and illustrated a lovely large (unpublished) account of her own life and then had the happy thought to deposit a copy in the archive.  If you have had occasion to write even a short autobiographical essay, the archive is interested.

3. Generated reminiscences

The archive does not just sit and wait.  Sometimes one or another document of interest not exist. As a rule, scientists who have participated in a key discovery or research programme are happy to converse about it but don't think to write it. Accordingly, it lasts only as long as the living memory of it. It has been my righteous habit to identify such unwritten episodes and ask the appropriate persons to put it into prose. "You were intimately involved in the discovery of ..., and I have no doubt that you have often related how it happened. Now I would like you to tell me. You can type about half as fast as you talk, so please tell the story for the permanent record.  How hard can that be?"  This approach tends to be persuasive, and the archive has now generated some unique historical documents.  And I get to read them first.  This is the most fun part of the job.

4. Likenesses

The checklist for biographical materials also serves for seeking photographs and other scanned likenesses.  The archive now (April 2010) has a digital library of about 350 images of about 200 individuals. These are submitted by the subject or photographer, or are captured from non-copyrighted internet sites, so there is reasonable assurance that all are in the public domain.

Most are single portraits, but the library also includes two sets that help to illuminate research programmes.  Most notable is a juicy set of 47 photos from Pierre-Paul Grassé & Charles Noirot's heroic period in Africa around the time the IUSSI was founded.

For the most part, the archive has little interest in group photos, especially large groups, as these tend not to convey much.  There are exceptions. Group pictures from key congresses or conferences sometimes have a monumental quality. On the other hand, the archive is very much interested in true-life shots of scientists at work.

You have my postal and electronic addresses (see below). Please don't be shy about adding to the image library without being asked. If you have access to a substantial mass of archival photos, let's discuss it.

5. Personal papers

Most scientists, even very fruitful ones, are not public intellectuals, so that their correspondence and other personal papers are not an automatic target for archival deposition. All too often, when a scientist of note retires or dies the contents of her/his filing cabinets are simply dispersed or pulped (I was especially upset to find that this had happened to Leo Pardi's materials.)

The IUSSI archive has few files of personal papers, and that is how it should be. Especially in the case of large masses of such material, the usual repository of first choice should be the archive at the individual's home institution. However, we want to keep a registry of where insect sociobiologists' papers go. If you have such information, please let me know.

The IUSSI archive does have a few small files of note. Most valuable is probably an orderly 23-year set of correspondence between Betty McMahan and Karl von Frisch.

At present, the archive is a modest affair that fits easily in a filing cabinet in my office in Trinidad. In time our holdings will grow to require something larger and more centrally located (with a real archivist, not an eager amateur). This is not urgent, but we need to start thinking about it. For now, I'm happy to be your guy.

Christopher K. Starr
Department of Life Sciences
University of the West Indies
St Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago

ckstarr (at) gmail.com

Last updated: Tuesday, September 20, 2022