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Science in the Archives

Pasts, Presents, Futures

Archives bring to mind rooms filled with old papers and dusty artifacts. But for scientists, the detritus of the past can be a treasure trove of material vital to present and future research: fossils collected by geologists; data banks assembled by geneticists; weather diaries trawled by climate scientists; libraries visited by historians. These are the vital collections, assembled and maintained over decades, centuries, and even millennia, which define the sciences of the archives.
With Science in the Archives, Lorraine Daston and her co-authors offer the first study of the important role that these archives play in the natural and human sciences. Reaching across disciplines and centuries, contributors cover episodes in the history of astronomy, geology, genetics, philology, climatology, medicine, and more—as well as fundamental practices such as collecting, retrieval, and data mining. Chapters cover topics ranging from doxology in Greco-Roman Antiquity to NSA surveillance techniques of the twenty-first century. Thoroughly exploring the practices, politics, economics, and potential of the sciences of the archives, this volume reveals the essential historical dimension of the sciences, while also adding a much-needed long­-term perspective to contemporary debates over the uses of Big Data in science. 

392 pages | 25 halftones, 11 line drawings, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Biological Sciences: Natural History

Earth Sciences: History of Earth Sciences

History: History of Technology

History of Science

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences


“This volume’s articles deal with historically universal problems of accumulation, preservation, management, interpretation, and dissemination of data. The articles explore how stores of observations were used in the past and contemplate present techniques for retrieving electronic information. Additionally, the articles consider the types of documents in which knowledge was recorded, and evaluate the consequences of ‘data deluge.’ Political controversies have arisen over how data is gathered and analyzed, perhaps particularly in those disciplines in which the science is its archive, such as evolutionary genetics and climatology. Ownership of information and access to evidence are perennial dilemmas. Most authors focus on the biological sciences, although astronomy and paleontology are also addressed. Like editor Daston, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, the contributors are experienced and well-regarded historians of science. While the text is likely of most interest to researchers or readers of works such as Ann Blair's Too Much to Know, this reviewer can see herself using parts of this collection in a historiography class, together with a textbook such as John Tosh's The Pursuit of History, now in its sixth edition, or The Houses of History, edited by Anna Green and Kathleen Troup. Recommended.”


“The twelve essays in this elegantly crafted volume explore, as editor Lorraine Daston puts it, ‘how the sciences choose to remember past findings and plan future research.’ They look at ways in which scholars have preserved and ordered scientific knowledge from antiquity to the present….[T]he book raises important historical questions about how scholars know what has been done in the past, incorporate it into their own work, share it with others, and plan to preserve it for the future. At the same time, it offers intriguing insights into the practice of scholarly communities over a wide swathe of western history and a model of individual papers transformed into a coherent and readable whole.”

Mathematical Association of America

Science in the Archives achieves startling coherence despite its enormous range. The science at stake embraces varieties of knowledge making that include scientific disciplines like genetics, astronomy, and climatology, yet that also reach back to Antiquity and forward to the databases of today. Each of the twelve chapters argues a different case, together unfolding the crucial generative power of archival practice.  This volume—rich, rigorous—should be required reading for anyone who thinks the sciences and the humanities are really distinct domains.”

Lisa Gitelman, New York University

“Renowned historian of science Daston and her line-up of stellar scholars show that how data and information are organized is part of the scientific process. This essential book traces how archives provided crucial support to the process of creating scientific data.”

Jacob Soll, University of Southern California

“This pathbreaking book brilliantly illuminates how scientific work consistently relies on the making and keeping of records. Twelve richly researched studies highlight long continuities in the hopes and resources invested in archiving of scientific research for current and future use.”

Ann Blair, Harvard University

"engaging and accessible . . . these essays cover a wide range of disciplines and eras: from the aforementioned ancient astronomical records to Victorian medical case histories to contemporary data mining. Science in the Archives nonetheless manages to achieve thematic coherence by focusing readers’ attention on the ways in which scientific knowledge continually evolves amid a constant flux of tools, techniques, and scientific traditions."


"I found it illuminating to recognize, gradually, the subtle connections that link these diverse papers. The experience of the reader recapitulates, in a way, the process of production. Daston’s technique is to choose an open-ended subject, then to bring together about a dozen original scholars with diverse interests and let them gradually settle on their individual topics. The resources of the Max Planck Institute enable them to meet together several times over a few years, and the looseness or contestability of the framing stimulates them to think through their topics in relation to one another, without seeking a tight consensus even on definitions."

Journal of Modern History

"Ambitiously innovative . . . Science in the Archives is the fruit of a working group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. It assembles the diverse thinking of scholars who come from different directions yet animated by a shared curiosity in archives as material things, created with effort, and engendering repeated questioning, in some cases over hundreds of years."

Studies in History and Philosophy of Biology & Biomedical Science

Table of Contents

Introduction: Third Nature
Lorraine Daston
I. Nature's Own Canon: Archives of the Historical Sciences
1. Astronomy after the Deluge
Florence Hsia
2. The Earth as Archive: Contingency, Narrative, and the History of Life
David Sepkoski
3. Empiricism in the Library: Medicine’s Case Histories
Andrew Mendelsohn
II. Spanning the Centuries: Archives from Ancient to Modern
4. Archiving Scientific Ideas in Greco-Roman Antiquity
Liba Taub
5. Ancient History in the Age of Archival Research
Suzanne Marchand
6. The Immortal Archive: Nineteenth-Century Science Imagines the Future
Lorraine Daston
III. Problems and Politics: Controversies in the Global Archive
7. The “Data Deluge”: Turning Private Data into Public Archives
Bruno J. Strasser
8. Evolutionary Genetics and the Politics of the Human Archive
Cathy Gere
9. Montage and Metamorphosis: Climatological Data Archiving and the U.S. National Climate Program
Vladimir Janković
IV. The Future of Data: Archives of the New Millennium
10. Archives-of-Self: The Vicissitudes of Time and Self in a Technologically Determinist Future
Rebecca Lemov
11. An Archive of Words
Daniel Rosenberg
12. Querying the Archive: Data Mining from Apriori to PageRank
Matthew L. Jones
Epilogue: The Time of the Archive
Lorraine Daston

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