Category Archives: archives

The (Bentley) Glass is More than Half Full: An Interview With Audra Wolfe

In keeping with my interest in archives, last week I interviewed Audra Wolfe about her experiences cataloging the papers of geneticist Bentley Glass which are held at the American Philosophical Society. This work is funded by a National Science Foundation Scholar’s grant. Audra is a historian and editor based in Philadelphia. When not knee-deep in other people’s manuscripts, she’s working on a textbook on Cold War science for Johns Hopkins University Press and is also a food blogger and canning expert (see here)

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RADIN: Why Bentley Glass?

WOLFE: Bentley Glass is one of those people who shows up as a bit player all over the history of the Cold War. I first noticed him in his role as chair of the Biological Sciences Curriculum study, one of the major post-Sputnik attempts to reform American science education. But once I knew the name, I started seeing references to him in the oddest places: the nuclear test ban debate and fallout, Pugwash, debates over civil liberties and academic freedom, Lysenkoism, space science, the new reproductive technologies. And of course he built the excellent genetics collection at the American Philosophical Society (APS). Who was this guy?

What struck me about Glass—what seemed to make him a worthwhile subject for further study—was that he seemed to be breaking all the rules for Cold War scientists. Here was a guy who had participated in any number of interracial civil rights groups in Baltimore, who was the president of the Maryland chapter of the ACLU for ten years, who frequently spoke out against “excessive” nuclear testing (though note that he refused to sign Linus Pauling’s petitions), and was one of the most prominent defenders of academic freedom in the late 1950s—yet he apparently had no problem getting a Q security clearance or getting his AEC grants renewed. When we think of scientists who protested government policies in the 1940s and 1950s, we tend to think of people like J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Condon, Linus Pauling, or H. J. Muller—all of whom were “punished” in one way or another for speaking their minds. Yet here was Bentley Glass, with a thriving career, a clearance, and a passport.

RADIN: I understand there’s been almost no historical work on Glass and from what you’ve told me, his papers are a mess. How do you imagine that the cataloging of this archive will support scholarship on Cold War science?

WOLFE: That’s a really good question, and it’s something I ask myself every day that I’m at the APS. And it’s certainly true that the Internet makes it much more possible to investigate someone like Glass, who was frequently quoted in regional newspapers, than it has ever been before. Many of the items in his collection, especially the institutional records, are duplicated in other archives. Even so, I’m convinced that there are at least three categories of findings that can’t be found any other way.

First, at the most basic level, are corrections to the published records. The papers are full of exchanges between scientists and journalists about what is an accurate representation of their work or beliefs. The point isn’t that the archives can somehow give us a glimpse of eternal truth, but rather that they can show us friction points, places where scientists’ views of reality don’t mesh with those of the larger public.

I’m also finding the archives a useful way to get a sense of the global range (in both senses of the term) of Glass’s activities. I am continually surprised by the sheer volume of material related to such unexpected organizations as the National Council of Churches and Pugwash. It’s also rather enlightening to see the same people, over and over again, working together in different roles.

But by far the most unique resource in the Glass papers is a category of documents I think of as “letters from strangers.” Glass maintained a vigorous public profile. Besides the newspapers interviews and magazine profiles, he was a familiar figure on the lecture circuit. Random people wrote to him constantly. Most of these letters fall into the category of “concerned citizens” wanting to know Glass’s opinion on fallout or genetic defects. They write to congratulate him for refusing to take a loyalty oath, or to chide him for endangering Americans by calling for disarmament. Some of them start to verge on metacriticism—my favorites are the ones that ask Glass to reflect on the role of the scientist as a political figure. These are remarkable documents that, at least for the moment, can only be accessed by investing hours in the archives.

RADIN: What’s your favorite thing you’ve found so far?

WOLFE: A pen used by the mayor of Baltimore to sign the city’s Civil Rights Ordinance. Glass played a pivotal role in getting this passed by refusing to hold the American Association of University Professor’s annual meeting in Baltimore (he was president at the time) while the city had segregationist hotel accommodation laws on the books.

RADIN: So, is the “story” we have about Cold War science wrong, or is it “something about Glass”?

WOLFE: Both, I think. Ask me next year.


A searchable, folder-level list of the Glass papers is available on request. For more information, e-mail Audra at audrajwolfe@gmail.com

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The "Problem" of the Archive

For many of us, archives are a central feature of our day-to-day work practices. In research practicums we learn about how to identify archival sources and begin piecing fragments into coherent accounts. However, I often find myself thinking about the epistemological (and ethical) status of the archive. This is a gap in our pedagogy that warrants attention. At the most basic of levels — how did this material come to be available to me as historian and what are my obligations to these material traces?

Cultural critics, anthropologists, and social historians have done important work in this vein — the translation of Derrida’s Archive Fever into English spurred a flurry of scholarship in the late 1990s, including one of my favorites: Carol Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. Steedman is an interpreter of Derrida, who draws on the archive as source of power in order to probe the politics of doing ‘bottom up’ history with records that were produced by the state (prison records, tax records, birth and death certificates). More recently, Ann Stoler has drawn on her considerable ethnographic and historical expertise to problematize the archive in colonial history in her book Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Along this grain, indeed, the archive has increasingly become an intellectual boundary object, bringing historians into dialog with anthropologists. A recent example is Andrew Wilford & Eric Tagliacozzo’s edited volume, Clio/Anthropos: Exploring the Boundaries between Anthropology and History. The essays, by practitioners of history and ethnography, consider how the archive structures knowledge production . . . and vice versa.

My own work as a historian of biology deals with the construction of archives (this is an actor’s category) made out of human and non-human blood samples. The scientists who have assembled these collections view them as repositories that will be used to generate knowledge about the past and engage in various memory practices (ala Geoff Bowker) familiar to me from my own experiences in textual archives. This leads me to my questions for the blogosphere:

(1) What are the epistemic & ethical anxieties that you — as historians of science — have faced in your own encounters with the archive? To what extent are we uniquely positioned to contribute to this broader discussion? I have a few ideas of my own, but want to hear from you.

(2) And, what are the range of non-text-based ‘archives’ that you have encountered in your research? What can we learn about our own historical knowledge production practices by studying the archival techniques of other kinds of experts? How does this work intersect with or diverge from the literature on the history of collections and collecting?

I leave you with a link to the Cryobook Archive, work of the artist Tagny Duff (thanks to historian of bio-art, Hannah Rogers for the tip!). Duff has fashioned a series of texts out of living, human bodily substance. Creepy, ‘cool’, and provocative . . .