It is becoming impossible to maintain a full record of the progress of science and technology. A large fraction of the scientific and engineering knowledge that humanity now possesses was discovered in our own lifetime (some nine-tenths of all scientific papers ever written were written by scientists who are alive today). That calls for a corresponding exponential increase in historical documentation--the preservation of source materials that we and our posterity require in order to understand the processes of modern discovery. Historians and archivists are making vigorous documentation efforts, but funding for their work has not increased over the past generation; thus decade by decade an ever smaller fraction of scientific work has been documented in even the most superficial manner. In entire fields there is little but the scientific papers themselves, which give a grossly incomplete and often distorted view of how the research was really organized and pursued; still less is preserved documenting the history of technology.
This is an experiment to use sites on the World Wide Web to gather historical source materials. The Internet is becoming the method of first choice for researchers to store and exchange information, and Web sites offer the most flexible and appealing way to exploit the Internet. We hope that a site dedicated to a particular scientific development of the past will become a magnet attracting scientists themselves to submit unpublished documentation--grant proposals, reports, correspondence, autobiographical reminiscences, historical narratives, photographs, commentary on the materials previously submitted, and analysis of the topic in question. To explore this novel approach to documentation we have launched a cohort of independent sites that address a single highly important and explosively growing field: the earth sciences with their associated research technologies.
These sites have been constructed under the aegis of leading scientific organizations, namely the American Meteorological Society (AMS), the American Geophysical Union (AGU), and the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics (AIP). These organizations have made a commitment to permanent accessibility of the structured information (transported to whatever future formats evolve), as each of the three already has a Web server containing archival scientific publications which they will maintain for posterity. New Web sites are easily lost to view amid the chaotic growth of the medium; all three organizations guarantee the stability of their scientific history sites, anchored as they are to well- established Web mechanisms developed for their print publications, as reliable repositories for historically valuable information.
Each of the three organizations has developed the informational content of its Web sites independently, and each will experiment with different structures in some respects. However, we hope that cooperative experimentation with these collection methods will generate a permanent and useful archive of information, and that our sites will serve as a model for other scientific documentation initiatives on the Web. Each site will be judged successful if it attracts a substantial body of historical source materials, helps ensure the preservation of documentation that might otherwise be lost, and otherwise shows promise of providing future scientists, historians, and other scholars with the wherewithal to produce usable historical accounts of a particular topic.
Evaluation is overseen principally by committees of scientists and historians of science already established for other purposes: the History of the Atmospheric Sciences Committee of the AMS, the History of Geophysics Committee of the AGU and the Advisory Committee on History of Physics of the AIP.