Capturing the Past: NHGRI Historical Archiving Initiative

June 3, 2014

Starting with NHGRI's original raison d'être - the Human Genome Project - NHGRI has been closely tied to or led a number of very high-profile genomics projects. These efforts have produced massive volumes of documents, notes, emails, slides, photographs, videos and other materials. As the institute's scientific portfolio widens, the pace of generating such materials is only growing.

Several years ago, I realized that we were at risk of losing valuable materials that are of historic value because we lacked a systematic approach for archiving institute resources. I concluded that NHGRI needed to develop an infrastructure for assimilating existing materials and for capturing future materials. In doing so, we would provide historians with a resource with key information about NHGRI activities and the field of genomics. To that end, NHGRI has initiated a 'historical archiving initiative' that aims to: (1) "get our house in order" with respect to archiving, so as to ensure that we do not lose any historically-relevant materials; and (2) foster the pursuit of scholarly work about the history of genomics and NHGRI. The latter will eventually involve making many of the archived materials publically available.

Collage of archived documentsWe started this initiative by scanning thousands of historically relevant, hard-copy files. Many of these files are official government records whose disposition must be handled according to well-defined regulations. By generating digital copies, there will be continued access to the information even if the original paper files are archived elsewhere. Meanwhile, existing digital files are being organized in a more systematic fashion and stored on institute computers. All of these steps are happening while we develop and put into place institute-wide 'best practices' for retaining and organizing relevant digital files, including handling issues that arise when staff members join and leave the institute.
In order to make these documents accessible (internally or externally), we plan to develop a database that includes relevant metadata (e.g., annotations regarding confidentiality and document provenance) about the materials and that allows for search capabilities. The database and its curation should enable greater access to historically-relevant materials by staff and other interested parties. As with many other NHGRI programs, we have plans to seek input from the outside community about these historical archiving efforts, including convening a group to help us assess progress.

There are also components of our archiving initiative that will generate new historically-relevant materials. For example, we have started an oral history project that is collecting and recording interviews with NHGRI staff, external scientists, and policy makers who have been involved in the Human Genome Project and other subsequent genomics programs. Another example is the creation of scope and content notes that provide detailed descriptions of archived materials, adding value to the amassed holdings.

Lastly, a component of our efforts will involve generating and publishing scholarly works that describe and analyze the history of important NHGRI and genomics programs. Being able to examine the history and circumstances behind key genomics programs and related efforts will be important contributions to the history of science more broadly. Expect to see articles written about human genome variation programs at NHGRI, the $1,000 Genome Technology Development Program, and the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications Program in the coming months.

From left to right: Early NHGRI (then NCHGR) staff photo, 1988 National Academy of Sciences report about the Human Genome Project, and President Bill Clinton and Francis Collins at a White House press event in 2000.

It is relatively easy for me, as the NHGRI Director, to declare that what NHGRI does is historically important; however, it is more meaningful and relevant for NHGRI to facilitate the collection, organization, and interpretation of historic materials that make this case in a more sophisticated and robust way. Hopefully, this initiative will do just that.

For more information on the NHGRI historical archiving efforts, see The NHGRI History of Genomics Program.

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Posted: July 8, 2014