Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine



The acceleration of the electronic era has brought archivists incredible opportunity as well as the nagging worry: Will history's treasures be squandered?

O N    C A M P U S E S

Uncertainty in the Archives
By Joanne P. Cavanagh
Illustration by Polly Becker

Photo by Margot Einstein
Courtesy Archives of the Institute for Advanced Study
Einstein wasn't worth the money.

In a scribbled copy of a telegram sent in spring 1927, Johns Hopkins President Frank J. Goodnow posed the possibility of recruiting Albert Einstein to teach physics.

"Shall [Johns Hopkins] offer 5 thousand for semester. Answer," Goodnow sent after meeting Einstein in Berlin.

"Goodnow," came the reply from Hopkins provost and former physics professor Joseph S. Ames. "Do not think Einstein for one year worth $10,000. Money needed elsewhere badly."

Einstein had won the Nobel Prize six years before. His theory of relativity and other scientific principles had revolutionized Newton-born classical physics, making way for the modern field of quantum mechanics. Einstein was already an international star, given a hero's welcome at New York's harbor in 1921, and lauded with medals and honorary degrees from Columbia, Princeton, and other elite universities.

But, as told in letters filed in an acidfree folder in the archives at Milton S. Eisenhower Library, a move to lure Einstein to Hopkins failed. It seems the university also was making a play for renowned physicist Erwin Schrodinger, a founder of the new study of "wave behavior."

Schrodinger got the initial offer. And--after writing to ask about tenure, pension, teaching workload, and vacation days--he apparently didn't take the job. Goodnow then made a formal pitch to Einstein, who had become a target of Nazi-led anti-Semitism.

"I find in talking over with my friends that they were, as I supposed, very anxious to have you with us," Goodnow wrote on July 12, 1927.

The reply came back Sept. 7, typed in German in heavy round letters and signed simply "A. Einstein." The physics professor wrote that health problems prevented him from accepting. He further explained in words that would haunt Ames: "I could not offer enough to justify, it seems to me, such a great financial offer."

"Dear Goodnow," Ames wrote bluntly a few weeks later, forwarding Einstein's reply to the president at his farm in Norfolk, Connecticut. "He thinks that you offered him too much money."

In the 1920s, these letters were filed away in the administrative folders of the Office of the President, along with other work-a-day exchanges. The yellowed copies, bearing the finger smudges of Einstein, Goodnow, or Ames, lay hidden among memos about the physics lab construction budget.

From his subterranean office on the A-Level at Homewood's Eisenhower Library, archivist Jim Stimpert mentions the letters as an example of the tales archives can tell. Discovered decades afterward, the modest moment is regarded as a curiosity by the few fellow researchers who know of it.

"To think, Einstein didn't think he was worth that much money. He thought it would be wasteful," ponders Stimpert. "It might be akin to a star baseball player turning down a million dollar contract."

The university's offer in today's dollars wasn't small change either: about $90,000 a year.

The intimacy of the letters--the polite language, the deteriorating paper, and slanted handwriting--enlivens history. Yet, should Hopkins today woo another later-to-be-iconic scientist, the exchange might be lost. Put in 1990s terms, would the university have filed Einstein's response if it had been made via electronic mail?

"Theoretically, people shouldn't be deleting e-mail until I read it," Stimpert says of the growing prevalence of computerized dialogue among campus faculty and staff. "But I'm not going to read everyone's e-mail. And even if I wanted to, people don't want their e-mail read."

The Einstein-related letters (a slim folder compared to the 90 boxes of material at Princeton University, where Einstein became affiliated in 1933) are found in Hopkins's Special Collections and Archives. The historic moment they portray is among thousands hidden in university materials housed at Homewood. The Peabody Institute and Applied Physics Laboratory mark their histories in separate collections. And the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions maintain the Alan M. Chesney Medical Archives.

Scientists' notebooks full of scrawled theories, copies of speeches, letters, memos, diaries, unpublished manuscripts, photos, lawsuits, minutes, party invitations, budgets, student essays, patent requests, newspaper articles, scrapbooks, and other fallout from the daily business of being a university are constantly categorized, boxed, and stored.

Those who come searching include biographers, historians, students, and administrators. They sit at long tables, a can of pencils within reach, to visit and analyze the past. But modernity has come calling too, and the electronic era, especially, is knocking the dust off the archives.

Much of what's stored on steel shelving now can be glimpsed via the Internet by researchers from Charles Village to Shanghai. Stimpert and other record keepers welcome the wider access but also wonder, more and more, if pieces of history will be squandered as the information age accelerates. Archives today are adapting. Some call it evolution. Some call it revolution.

Einstein himself might wonder at the cacophony.

The best laid plans
CALL UP HOPKINS'S SPECIAL COLLECTIONS Web site and a copy of an etching fills the computer screen. A Romanesque robed figure leans intently over a scroll in a classical library.

Welcome to The Web page illustration conveys a romanticized past, days when only skilled scholars studied history's paper trail. As the printing press brought the written word to the masses, the Internet has further democratized information.

Most archives across the country, especially at research universities, are beginning to create Web sites, some advanced, some rudimentary. Forget, for the moment, record groups and accession numbers--the numerical filing codes used by archivists. On your personal computer, type a key word. Click on a link. Turn up a historical summary of Hopkins's yearbook.

Check out this on-line snippet: "The Class of 1891 called their yearbook the Hopkinsian. The class of 1892 adopted the title Hullabaloo after a popular school yell. The class of 1893, perhaps to spite the class of 1892, went back to the Hopkinsian." The next year, the apparent grudge match was settled--and for those who always wondered at the origin of the name--it became thereafter Hullabaloo.

Let (academic) freedom ring
Mostly, the Web sites provide "finding aids," a loose inventory of materials filed in the archives. In some cases, scholars can view scanned images of manuscripts or read historic synopses written by archivists. "The Web and e-mail have totally transformed things," says Nancy McCall, archivist for the Hopkins Medical Institutions. "Just four to five years ago, institutions weren't that accessible."

The medical archives Web site, at--take a deep breath--, offers listings of photos, medical instruments, doctors' personal papers, university records, and other historic material housed mostly at 2024 Monument Street.

Among the items a computer user can now view: a scanned image of the surgical clamp Hopkins surgeon Alfred Blalock designed for the famous 1944 "blue baby" operation, which has helped correct heart defects in newborns. Normally, such a revolutionary clamp might be kept behind glass, on display only to a few.

Similarly, over at Peabody Institute and in Special Collections, researchers can speed up unwieldy archival excavations via on-line searches: "From the privacy of their own bedrooms, assuming they have a computer in their bedrooms, people can get right down to the folder level, looking through boxes," says Peabody archivist Elizabeth Schaaf.

Peabody's site ( is expanding. Over the summer, a Denmark musicologist called Schaaf to do research on early Peabody director Sir Asger Hamerik. Today, with a few computer keystrokes, he should be able to pull up a list of archive holdings: Hamerik's musical scores, manuscripts, and scrapbooks.

The music conservatory is also courting Internet audio. The institute plans to offer oral histories of various artists, such as trumpet player Roy McCoy, who toured with other jazz greats in the 1930s and figured in Baltimore's jazz scene. Says Schaaf: "That's tomorrow."

But while the glow of computers illuminates such archival gems, the by-products of the "technetronic era" also have created confusion and even threatened the record-keeping process.

A chief dilemma entangling archives today is the transitory nature of information. New mediums are changing rapidly, and many are discarded. That means material recorded on one format--such as compact disks--may be unreadable in the future. Since longevity isn't a high priority in technological advancement, deterioration is also a rising concern. Despite the fact that "archive" is a standard computer term, most programmers think in terms of nanoseconds, not centuries.

For archivists, predictions of a "paperless office" far from materialized with the rise of personal computers in the 1980s. If anything, the ease of noncarbon existence prompted people to cc: co-workers with duplicates. So another central problem is information overload. Archivists may end up with 10 copies of the same memo.

Special Collections Sampler
Elizabeth Yakel, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, is among scholars now debating how best to keep the archives up-to-speed with technology.

"The electronic explosion is gigantic," says Yakel, who published a recent article on the subject in American Archivist. "We can document more things. But it makes you think differently about what to preserve. Can you preserve the physical medium, like a disk? Will there be a machine around that can read it in five years, or 10 years?"

Such turnover can be the equivalent of discarding English for a new language every decade or less. Until recently, diaries or letters or other writings were physical presences to be stored away and read later. "Archivists in the past have been custodians waiting for information to drift in. Paper records go into a file cabinet," Yakel says. "But with electronic records, you have to think about maintaining that over time."

Set aside e-mail for a moment. Should archivists today keep a copy of a university's Web site, with its announcements, press releases, and resource listings? And what about the various updated versions? If so, how do you call it up on the computers of the future?

These questions will multiply as new technology replaces the old. Call it the 8Track Tape Syndrome or the Betamax Video Dilemma, but the out-of-date problem is tripping up some of the nation's top archives.

Two years ago, at the National Archives and Records Administration, a 15-year-old electromagnetic tape containing White House messages started melting on a machine that spins reels 10 times faster than older models. The National Archives, which is relying more and more on computers, controls as many as 5 billion documents, including the original copy of the U.S. Constitution and Lee Harvey Oswald's address book.

Many archives, including those at Hopkins, are already getting computer files stored via antiquated formats.

Stimpert was stumped a few years ago when his office got a set of "old" 8-inch computer floppy disks--circa 1980. There was no machine on campus to read them. Today, he says the disks are still around somewhere, but he's not sure what's on them. "Those have long since disappeared into storage," Stimpert says. "We have them. But there's a chance they may never be read."

What's Worth Keeping... What's Not
In some cases, archivists worry, critical pieces of history may be lost to technological turnover. CD-ROM, once thought to be a sturdy, compact repository, has an estimated shelf life of 50 years, with deterioration being found after only a decade. Film, video, and audio tape life spans range from three years for some video to a few decades for film, depending on format and preservation efforts.

"That's a massive problem for us," says Schaaf. "We've got reel-to-reel tape that goes back to the 1950s that we have to rerecord. We've got hundreds and hundreds of hours that will require a really heroic conservation effort."

Schaaf says those reel-to-reel originals (of student performances, visiting artists, and orchestra concerts) will be copied onto new reel-to-reel tape. That resets the deterioration clock--at least until archivists determine whether digital formats currently being tested will fare better.

Over at the Homewood archives, officially known as the Ferdinand Hamburger Jr. Archives, a similar scrimmage against time is being waged for the Johns Hopkins Science Review. The university-produced program, which aired from 1948 to 1960, was considered a pioneer broadcast venture. The live shows were captured on kinescopes, images filmed off a studio TV monitor. But the 16 mm kinescopes are disintegrating and can't be shown on modern projectors. Videotapes were made but must be rerecorded.

Deterioration is nothing new to archivists, who have long dealt with acidic papers, which yellow and break apart as the years pass. Typical letter paper, for example, has an average life of 75 years if stored in a place with little humidity, no light, and a stable temperature of 70 degrees F.

Notes Schaaf: "Paper does very well. And, what about carved marble? That's all over Italy. Clay tablets work if you don't drop them. Maybe we should go back to clay tablets."

As archives approach the next millennium, success in chronicling the past for future reference may require a combination of old and new preservation methods. Take Hopkins's annual catalog, known as The Circular until recently. Around the turn of the century, The Circular was an annual campus diary of sorts, tracking student class lists, names of professors who taught the courses, and other details. Early issues also published literary work, serving as an academic journal.

"Some of them are crumbling to dust," Stimpert says.

To salvage the materials, Stimpert hopes to scan copies into a computer database. But the scanning technique is costly. The page tally until 1903 alone is 2,800. And some of the type is old-fashioned and doesn't scan well, which means humans need to type in the missing words or correct the spellings in the computer-captured version--a process that could take 20 minutes per page. A full-time worker would take four and a half months just to fix those pages, Stimpert estimates. He hasn't figured a cost. But it would be in the thousands.

"We are tossing around the idea of pursuing grant funding to get it done," he says, explaining the frustration many archivists experience. "In general, we're groping around for ideas and methods."

Cynthia Requardt, Hopkins's Kurrelmeyer Curator of Special Collections, explains how new technology can, despite the problems, aid preservation. "Scanning material onto our Web site provides a digital surrogate if material is fragile. Scholars can then see the image of an item without actually having to see it," Requardt says. "It saves researchers time because they don't have to travel from California and elsewhere and it saves wear and tear on the item. It's safer. There isn't as much manhandling."

Stimpert and others say that much of the archival data will, in the end, still be recorded on paper as a safeguard against the fickleness of technology. In the case of electronic mail, that means printing it out and filing the messages in the acidfree folders.

That takes us back to the question we posed earlier: Would Einstein's response to Hopkins's job offer have been recorded if it had been made via e-mail?

Hopkins President William R. Brody often uses e-mail, and last year his office started printing out and filing messages in topical folders. But in the modern office, there are no guarantees.

"A whole chunk of e-mail disappeared," says Brody's assistant Diane Toms. The university's computer gurus have been trying to track down the messages in cyberspace.

"The e-mail was sent between March and the end of June. They have no idea," Toms adds. "It's got them stumped. At this point they don't know if they will be able to retrieve it."

Joanne P. Cavanaugh (MA'97) is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.