STS in the Archives

As a field of academic inquiry, Science and Technology Studies (STS) developed against the diverse disciplinary backdrops of history, philosophy, and sociology of science and technology, as well as science and technology policy. The relationship between STS and these disciplines has been one of community, with scholarship in the various disciplines borrowing from one another under the broader auspices of STS.

STS is a juncture for work done in this variety of disciplines, as David Hess describes in Science Studies.[1] For Hess, the function of STS is to provide a conceptual toolkit for thinking about expertise in different and meaningful ways. Each of the more well-defined disciplines—history, philosophy, sociology, policy studies—contributes to this methodological toolkit, benefitting one another. STS tracks the history of scientific disciplines and technological developments, the dynamics of science and technologies as social institutions, and the philosophical basis for scientific knowledge and technological know-how. This schema does not mutually exclude sociology, history, and philosophy, but it rather encourages collaboration among the diverse disciplines within STS. This collaboration did much to improve the general quality of STS work, as well as that of the individual disciplines that comprise it.

In this interdisciplinary melange, where and how to STSers do their research? A simple answer: everywhere. STS reaches into the field to find company for researchers on expeditions, into laboratories to watch science happen, into classrooms where STEM becomes STEAM, into coffeeshops for interviews with scientists, into study rooms where philosophers think on their armchairs… and even into archives.

See, science isn’t a one-time event, nor is it a singular action or object. Instead, science exists as a conglomeration of the many people who worked to build to an idea; the shoulders of giants, as Isaac Newton put it. But not all these giants were scientists. Scientific knowledge comes out of the circumstances surrounding it.

This is where STS benefits from the archives. Those who made scientific discoveries did so in the context of their own lives. Personal relationships, political opinions, clothing and food preferences, schedules for laundry and cleaning quarters–all these are the invisible factors that shape scientific knowledge.But they are not so invisible. Archival material of people who work on scientific projects and technological innovations reveal factors outside laboratory conditions. And more! One piece of archival material can connect to a dozen other folders and boxes that expand the researcher’s ideas, demonstrating that a network of laboratory assistants collaborated on other projects, too. And while the preference of buttered toast over oatmeal may seem insignificant, the relationships are not.

But what of the archive’s benefit from STS? Though research within STS is varied, one component remains relatively stable. STS examines the external factors and impacts of scientific research and technological innovations. STS wants to find the people affected by policy decisions, medical advances, environmental injustices. STS digs through archives, looking for the papers no other researcher has found or used, and utilizes the resources at the archivist’s disposal to map the development and spread of knowledge, or of disease, or of early technology adoption. STS adds to metadata, tagging material with new identifiers, thereby expanding their uses for more researchers. And STSers are generally friendly people, too.

This is not to say that STS is the renaissance for archives; archives don’t need any such thing. Instead, the combination of STS and digital connectedness increases the prominence of archives’ usefulness. Where digital connectedness expands the number of users that see the material, STS expands the types of usefulness of that material.

Through STS, archives can make clear cases to their involvement in STEM departments that might otherwise not see the relevance of manuscripts and rare books to their research. But everything has a story, and archives, with STS, help fill in the gaps in those stories.

[1] David Hess, Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction  (New York: NYU Press, 1997).

About j.d.grunert

Historian, Science and Technology Studier, Librarian, Academish
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