An Interview with Carol Mead, Mathematics Archivist
By Ivars Peterson
Carol Mead administers the Archives of American Mathematics (AAM), a unit of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. As the only archival repository in the United States dedicated solely to collecting and preserving the papers and records of mathematicians and mathematical organizations, the AAM is the premier resource for researchers seeking primary sources in mathematics. The AAM is home to the MAA's records.
Ivars Peterson: Please describe your job.
Carol Mead: I administer the Archives of American Mathematics. It's a multifaceted job. I work directly with donors, for example. I get emails and phone calls from family members whose parents or whose spouse has died. I help them understand what papers and records the Archives will take, how to get them here, and what will happen to them once they get here. Once we get the collection catalogued and processed, we let them know where they can find an online finding aid to the collection.
I supervise an intern who processes collections, but I also do some processing myself. For instance, right now I'm working bit by bit on the Paul Halmos Papers and on his photograph collection, which includes about 14,000 photographs. I'm writing a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation to digitize the photos and get them online.
I work a lot with Albert Lewis at the Educational Advancement Foundation on a project that entails tracking down the mathematical Ph.D. descendants of R.L. Moore, H.S. Wall, and now H.J. Ettlinger. We tell them about the project and ask them to donate whatever papers might have something to do with their teaching or the influence that one of these professors had on their lives.
At the [Dolph Briscoe] Center, I'm on a committee called the Digital Assets Working Group. We're trying to figure out how to deal with our digital assets—those that are already here and how we are going to deal with future donations and digitization projects.
IP: What's in the archives?
CM: We have approximately 100 collections—for individual mathematicians as well as organizations. The MAA's records are here. We have the School Mathematics Study Group records, which get quite a bit of use. The majority of collections come from individuals, and the collections really vary. Sometimes it's just a few letters; sometimes it's a lot more.
For instance, with Paul Halmos, there's lots of correspondence. That's fun because you get to see his adaptation to technology, his beginning to use the computer as his main source of communication. That must have been really thrilling to him, since he was such a major communicator. We also have teacher's notes, notes that he took for his courses. We have a few journals, diaries. When he traveled—and he traveled quite a bit—he took extensive notes. He would write every day what happened that day.
Mathematicians seem a bit reluctant to donate their papers. Some will give to the university where they've worked for many years. Others think of their papers as junk and throw them away. People don't seem to realize that their papers are a big reflection of what they have done for their profession.
I feel that women are not well represented in the archives, and I am very interested in getting more collections, especially of prominent female mathematicians.
IP: How did you end up as an archivist of mathematical collections?
CM: I had been working at National Instruments, a computer company based in Austin. When I was in graduate school at UT, the company was trying to figure out what it would take to start an archive. I took on that project and wrote my master's report on it. The company then advertised for an archivist, and I got the job, which I did for five years.
But I wanted to get back to an academic environment. I ended up applying for the position I now have, which was previously held by someone I knew in graduate school. A lot of archivists don't have a background in the particular subject that they're taking on, which is a disadvantage in some ways but seems to work out in other ways. I don't have a math background, but I am trying to learn the history of mathematics. I've been enjoying the mathematicians that I meet, so I am liking this job quite a bit.
Revised on July 12, 2010.