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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May 2007

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Bytes of Note - Exploring Environmental Archives

Environmental research is increasingly historical research, and the history of environment as a policy issue goes back further than one might think. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was founded almost four decades ago. Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, her exposé on the negative effects of pesticide use, in 1962 (see a guide to her papers at Yale University’s Beinecke Library). Much further back, near the end of the U.S. Civil War, George Perkins Marsh published Man and Nature, an examination of human impacts on the natural world. Recently, the inherent use of time series data in the study of climate change should make us realize how earlier thought, action, technology, and policy form the context of today’s environmental dilemmas. Historical archives, then, should play an increasingly important role in environmental research and reassessment.

Unlike libraries, archives by definition house unique materials and therefore present unique research challenges. There is no Dewey Decimal System for archives, and the specialized terminology used by archivists can make it difficult to get started. Furthermore, there are thousands of archival repositories around the world, so how does one find materials of interest? A good place to start is the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections. This is a searchable, general—but by no means exhaustive—listing of manuscript collections. Search results point to local collection guides, known as “finding aids,” which usually describe the contents of boxes, cartons, folders, or even individual documents. Sometimes digital images are available on the holding institution’s Web site, but in most cases users must travel to explore a collection further.

The Library of Congress has been particularly good at making the cream of archival collections available digitally. Its American Memory site features collections including “Environmental Photographs,” “American Landscape and Architectural Design,” “Mapping the National Parks,” and “Evolution of the Conservation Movement.” While the Library of Congress owns historical documents from many points of origin, the National Archives preserves the ongoing records of U.S. environmental agencies and presidential administrations. For international materials, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is a good starting point.

For a more environmentally focused, multi-institution search, try the Forest History Society’s databases. These include a guide to environmental archival collections in North America, U.S. Forest Service history collections, and a searchable 35,000-entry bibliography of environmental history titles.

Other archives of note include the Denver Public Library Conservation Collection, a nationally known repository of environmental materials, and Harvard College Library’s Environmental Scienc and Public Policy Archives, which has strong collections relating to global environmental conferences and ozone diplomacy. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offers an impressive set of water resources and other historical materials, including a long oral history interview with natural hazards pioneer Gilbert F. White. The Water Resources Center Archives at the University of California at Berkeley is another good source for water management history. For those interested in preserving their own materials, the Web guide at Harvard’s Weissman Preservation Center offers helpful information, although it may save work to donate the materials to an environmental repository such as those mentioned above; a regional, state, or local historical society; or an academic or public library special collection.

GEORGE E. CLARK is the environmental resources librarian at the Harvard College Library. Material for Bytes of Note may be directed to him at

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