The IUSSI archive

You can see the latest image from the archive here


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: Monday, August 30, 2010