4 Questions for Peter Collopy

Peter Collopy joined Caltech in May as university archivist and head of special collections. A 32-year-old native of Philadelphia who grew up in Cleveland, Collopy received a bachelor of arts in history at Oberlin College and a master's and doctorate in history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. From 2015-17 he was a Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Digital Humanities Program at the University of Southern California. 

What attracted you to archival science as a field and to Caltech specifically?

I'm primarily a historian of 20th-century science and technology. Caltech is one of the major places where that history has happened. In graduate school, I became interested in the history of computing and the ways the counterculture was experimenting with technology in the 1960s and '70s, which also pulled me into the field of media studies. I wrote a dissertation about how psychiatrists, social scientists, and artists used the new technology of videotape to experiment with consciousness, and I’ve also written about debates about race in the fields of genetics and anthropology.

For me, these interests come together in the Caltech Archives. The history of science and technology is the content of most of our collections, but there are also all of these interesting questions about media involved. We're increasingly getting collections in the form of email rather than handwritten or typed letters, for example, and preserving digital materials is inherently different than preserving paper. Paper will last for hundreds of years in a cool room; hard drives and other magnetic media won’t. So digital archives can only exist if we commit to regularly migrating our collections to new media every five or 10 years.

How is the Archives different from the Library?

The Archives doesn't collect published materials—that's what the rest of the Library does. Instead, we get things like people's lab notebooks, letters to and from colleagues, perhaps early drafts of publications.

We store and catalog the resources that are necessary to understand the science of the past more deeply than you can by reading journal articles. Our resources are of use to professional historians of science and technology, but they can also be of interest to scientists and engineers who want to understand their predecessors, who want to understand decisions that shape the world that they work in and the ideas available to them to work with.

As chemists observe the behavior of molecules, historians observe the behavior of historical figures.

Science is a social activity. You can find evidence of that in publications and things like co-authorship, but you can find richer evidence of it in people's letters to each other and in people's letters to a third party about a colleague.

Thinking about archives as the laboratories of history is a useful metaphor, because it's often where historians go to test out ideas to see if the empirical evidence fits their theory. As chemists observe the behavior of molecules, historians observe the behavior of historical figures.

Archives tell you all the things that published articles can't, such as how a researcher came up with the idea to do the experiment in the first place. The researcher usually doesn’t write in the first person in an article and say, "I was riding my bike this morning and I had this idea." But they might write a letter to a colleague that says that.

How does the Archives work?

The Archives' task is to acquire historical materials produced mostly by Caltech faculty, but sometimes by alumni and others affiliated with Caltech, and then to comprehend fully those materials so that we can then share information with people interested in using the archival material for research. Those researchers come and use the materials or contact us and ask for help in using them remotely, or increasingly view entire collections online, like the Paul B. MacCready Papers.

The process of what we do often starts when faculty retire or when they pass away. A lot of our collections are faculty papers, so we'll have conversations with faculty on campus about what will happen to their papers when they're not using them anymore, or we'll talk about these collections with the families of deceased faculty. We make arrangements to get these materials and, once we have them, we organize them and put together resources to help a researcher understand the scope of a collection and find the part that they want access to. Then, we keep the collections under secure and stable conditions so that they'll last a long time.

We also support researchers, documentary filmmakers, and textbook publishers, among others, who are interested in using images from our collections in their own publications. We have a collection of about 10,000 photographs and we get frequent requests to use photographs.

We also conduct oral history interviews of Caltech faculty and affiliates to supplement our manuscript collections. We’ve published about 150 on the web.

What are your goals for the Archives?

One goal is to expand our collections in order to document more of research and life at Caltech. We have a lot of collections in biology, chemistry, and geology, for example, and we have a lot across the spectrum of physics. But, aside from early aeronautics, we don’t have all that much in engineering. Also, partly because computer science is a younger discipline, we don’t have a lot there, so we’d like to broaden our reach. And we'd like to supplement our paper collections with an archive of Caltech websites and other collections of electronic media.

We do a good job of reaching out to professional historians about the history of scientific and engineering research done at Caltech, but I would like to do more to reach out to other interested audiences, such as Caltech students, their families, prospective students, or neighbors in Pasadena.

Currently, we have a small museum, the Beckman Room, in the Beckman Institute. It focuses on chemist and entrepreneur Arnold Beckman, who was a prominent person in the history of Caltech as an alumnus, faculty member, trustee, and donor. I would like to build on that effort to do public history—to tell stories about the history of scientific and technical research done at Caltech, but also to allow visitors to in some way touch and experience that research. For example, we could accompany an exhibit about the long history of aerospace research at Caltech by having a small working wind tunnel in which visitors could place models. Providing that kind of direct engagement with the science that is part of the story of Caltech would be really exciting.






SoCaltech, Fall 2017Judy Hill