Thursday, August 25, 2011

The cataloguer's conundrum

The Wellcome Library is very pleased to announce that the third and final batch of Francis Crick's scientific papers is now fully catalogued and available for research. The entire archive has recently been imaged as part of the library's Wellcome Digital Library project 'Modern Genetics and its Foundations', and from late 2012 the archive will be available both in the original and as a digital version online. In the meantime, you are very welcome to consult the archive in the library.

The newly-catalogued batch of papers largely comprises Crick’s notes, drafts and correspondence from the late 1990s until his death in 2004, notably his research papers for two major pieces of work: 'A framework for consciousness', his 2003 paper with Christof Koch, which many colleagues saw as Crick’s roadmap for the study of consciousness after his death [footnote 1]; and 'What is the function of the claustrum?' [footnote 2], again written with Koch, a paper which Crick was busy working on only hours before he died.

As Crick’s cataloguer, I have mixed feelings about the completion of his archive catalogue – pleasure that this rich collection is now fully available for researchers, tempered by sadness that I have to leave Crick behind. My own virtual relationship with him started in 2003, quite a year to come to the project, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of his co-discovery of the structure of DNA.

While some scientific archives can be dry and technical, Crick’s records were never dull to work on, his forceful and compelling personality shining out through his letters and papers. Take his refreshing approach to organisational hierarchies. When addressed as ‘Dr Crick’ in the early 1960s by a young grad student at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Crick told him to ‘stop that nonsense’ and call him by his first name on the grounds that distinctions based on rank reduce communication and are inimical to progress. [footnote 3]

Crick’s archive unsurprisingly centres around his research on DNA and consciousness, inevitably touching on such massive questions as science’s ethical responsibilities towards society as a whole, and the relationships between science and religion. For lighter relief, Crick’s fan mail reveals his impact on the non-scientific public, as in a letter from the science fiction author Jack McDevitt, who in 1994 asked permission to write Crick a cameo role in his stargate novel Ancient Shores (Crick refused, rather slyly suggesting ‘Why not ask Jim Watson?’). [footnote 4]

But it’s the fate of archive cataloguers to be serial monogamists, and after all these years I’m moving on to the next project. So now it’s over to you to explore Crick’s papers - what kind of virtual relationship with his ideas and legacy will you develop?


1. File reference PP/CRI/L/1/8/13

2. File reference PP/CRI/L/1/8/27

3. File reference PP/CRI/J/1/8/12/1

4. File reference PP/CRI/J/1/4/12/1

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