Comment

Trouble under the Australian Academy of Science's dome

These are troublesome times for the Australian Academy of Science and the Basser Library under its mushroom dome. Look up "Basser Library of the Academy of Science" on the internet and you will find that the Basser Library is closed. Is this a storm in a teacup? Or does it signify a crucial re-evaluation of the purposes and authority of the Australian Academy of Science?

Papers belonging to Professor Frank Fenner, who died in 2010, are included in the collection at the Basser Library.
Papers belonging to Professor Frank Fenner, who died in 2010, are included in the collection at the Basser Library. Photo: Kirk Gilmour

Established in 1954 under its influential first president Professor Mark Oliphant, the Academy of Science is the oldest learned academy in Australia. Following its foundation, a handsome donation of £25,000 was made by businessman Adolph (later Sir Adolph) Basser for the creation of the Basser Library opened by prime minister Menzies on April, 26, 1962. Its goals were clear: to build a specialist library and to develop an archive in the history of Australian science and promote related research.

At that time scholars in Britain and America had grasped the importance of gathering the private papers and informal journals of their significant scientists to form a basis for national research. In Australia, two far-sighted leaders, Sir John Eccles, as president of the Academy and the distinguished historian, Sir Keith Hancock, director of the Research School of Social Sciences at the ANU, alert to the message of CP Snow of the need to join the "Two Cultures" of science and the humanities, came together to appoint a Joint Research Associate between the two institutions to initiate the archival collection at the Basser Library and open research in the history of Australia's science.

In the ensuing years, the Basser Library has become a major repository of private papers drawn from the estates of deceased Fellows, the donated records of several colonial societies and specialist discipline societies, and independent gifts. The collection includes works by such key scientific figures as David Rivett, Edgeworth David, Frank Fenner, Joseph Pawsey, Ernest Titterton, Arthur Birch, Ralph Slatyer and Hanna Neumann to name a few. As such it stands as the national archive in the history of this country's science.

At the same time the Academy also established a governing Library Committee of Fellows and outside experts; a journal, Records of the Academy of Science retitled Historical Records of Australian Science whose extensive biannual bibliographies chart the widening scope of publications in this Australasian field; created a biographical website "Bright Sparcs" and a National Committee for the History and Philosophy of Science and, through some 28 years of tenure of its long term archivist, opened its catalogued documentary resources to scholars. Throughout its history, the Library and its now named "Fenner Archives" have carried the support of the Academy's presidents. As the Academy's motto affirms: "We are whom we elect".

What then has happened? The message of closure carries no explanation. But in May 2015, the Council of the Academy, led by its new president, Professor Andrew Holmes of the University of Melbourne, successor to Professor Suzanne Cory, decided after "substantial consultations and discussions" to close the Basser Library as the centre for the history of Australian science and consign its manuscripts to another depository. Secrecy marked the decision. Neither the Academy's Library Committee of Fellows, nor the academic editors of Historical Records of Australian Science, or its donors and other stakeholders were informed. Rather the substantial consultations and discussions were confined to one financial adviser who recommended that the documentary collections had a low priority at the Academy table and should be disposed of in the budgetary interests of the institution.

The decision caused an outcry from Fellows, historians and archivists and societies whose archival records are held by the Library. This was no passing disruption. It struck at an enshrined purpose of the institution. It also involved important practical and legal issues. The Library of printed material could be safely abandoned, its resources available elsewhere. There were, however, no available outlets for the manuscript collections, and even if available, the costs of removal would far outweigh the maintenance cost of a competent archivist/ librarian in situ. The earlier experience of the ANU in its attempt to sell the Noel Butlin Archives had been telling, revealing a legal minefield that would have incurred far greater costs than keeping and developing the materials as assets. Questions of long delays in access to the archival material also surrounded the question of removal. But centrally the argument turned on the cultural and national value of the archives and their place in the Academy's role as a leader in the national science.

Historical documents are the evidential life-stream of science. Our national progress is built on the shoulders and the collaborative and individual thinking of talented men and women of science. Their private papers and informal notebooks can offer important keys to the evolution of their disciplines and underlie both scientific and technological inventions and knowledge. They can inform our educative processes and our science policies and provide a reflective overview of our historical development and potential future options. They can also contain unforeseen rewards. As an international group filed for the patent for the development of the plastic bank note, it was an archivist who identified that the crucial work had been done by a CSIRO scientist in Australia and who, alerting a legal team, produced an outcome with significant financial benefit to Australia.

Under pressure, a temporary stay of execution has been declared by the Council of the Academy and a Task Force assigned to investigate the Basser Library's future. Its role is far-reaching. As this informed group makes plain, the Fenner Archives "provide a wide range of evidence that underpins the authority of the Academy of Science to speak for science in this country".

Ann Moyal was inaugural Joint Research Associate at the Basser Library in 1962.