Archiving accelerator history

Archivists Adrienne Kolb (left) and Valerie Higgins stand behind a plaster sculpture of J. Robert Oppenheimer in the History Room. Photo: Laura Dattaro

In a box on the third floor of Wilson Hall is a thick book with a soft, faded green cover that contains the words that Robert R. Wilson, Fermilab’s first director, used to convince Congress to approve funds to build the lab’s first accelerator: “It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”

The book is the official transcription of an April 17, 1969, Congressional hearing, and it belongs to a collection within the Information Resources Department’s Fermilab History and Archives Project, which since the late 1970s has been quietly preserving the history of not only the lab but of accelerators around the world. Its home is a small room adjacent to the library, its doorway emblazoned with the words "Milton G. White History of Accelerators Room," full of books, papers, cassette tapes with oral history interviews and a white plaster likeness that Wilson sculpted of his Manhattan Project Director J. Robert Oppenheimer.

“Wilson wanted a history resource to offer the community of high-energy physicists so that they could come and relax and enjoy the history of their field and their endeavors,” said Adrienne Kolb, Fermilab historian and archivist. “They could become renaissance men like him by reading and studying.”

Kolb, who will retire in 2015, joined the lab in 1983 to help physicist Lillian Hoddeson archive the existing historical collections, which contain documents such as correspondence, meeting minutes, logbooks, annual reports and photographs (technical publications are preserved elsewhere in the lab). In August 2012, Valerie Higgins, who is professionally trained in archiving, became Fermilab’s first full-time archivist, working to, among other things, create online research guides called finding aids.

A finding aid functions roughly like an introduction and a table of contents for a collection, documenting the context within which the collection was created, the contents of the collection and the items contained in each box. The materials are stored in the History Room, the Archives House in the Village or an off-site location.

“Having these finding aids online lets people see for themselves what we have,” Higgins said. “They’re discovery tools.”

Some of the project’s most substantial collections include the personal papers of Leon Lederman, the lab’s second director; of John Linsley, a pioneer in the study of cosmic rays; and of Wilson himself. The project is also home to the papers of David Ritchie, who worked in Fermilab computing from 1971 to 2011; logbooks documenting the early operations of the Main Ring; and the early records of the Arts and Lectures series, as well as many other collections. In 1995, the project received the Superconducting Super Collider collection, which is currently being processed.

“We encourage people to think of the History and Archives Project as an asset that can help them, that they are welcome to explore,” Kolb said. “We can be of assistance in a wider, broader way for public appreciation of particle physics. This research is not just this arcane subject that a few people study. It’s for the betterment of mankind, like Wilson said.”

Laura Dattaro