On the Challenges of Science and the Power of Archives

Today, (not for the first time) I heard someone say, “I wanted to go into science, but my math just isn’t that good”.


This caused me to ask myself, (not for the first time) who started the rumor that science is all about math? I have a piece of paper hanging on my wall that is equally as valid as the piece of paper on the walls of the whiz kids with which I had the pleasure of graduating. Theirs and mine congratulate us on achieving an engineering degree. This seems amazing given the fact that I still count on my fingers, but it’s true. I’m not exactly a prize winning mathematician and I never will be, so surely there are others who are “not so good” with numbers but can achieve the same goal. Especially the wonderfully talented and concept-minded people whom I hear constantly discounting their own skills.


SWE/Archives word cloudI’ll be the first one to admit that it’s hard work, but I can safely say that any setbacks were primarily a result of a difference of learning languages. My professors said tomat-toe and I heard tomat-ta. I was constantly making adjustments to help myself understand the material — which inevitably slowed me down, but I gained a solid understanding of the concepts despite it all.


Let’s not even talk about the fact that I mostly hear the “I wanted to… science… but didn’t…” story from women.


Or let’s:


As a nearly 10-year member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), I’ve been involved in many projects aimed at making math and science seem obtainable for girls – who at the ripe age of 4th – 6th grade get turned off the idea that math is fun and building things is cool. Building things IS cool. One of my favorite exercises is trying to build a Lego(C) rocket with a partner. While their backs are to each other, one person studies a completed model of a rocket and attempts to give verbal instructions to the other person, who tries to construct an identical model out of loose pieces. (I highly recommend it as an entertaining exercise… at least for the person(s) watching the ensuing chaos.)


Where, I’d like to know, is there math in that exercise? It demands communication, teamwork, and problem solving. Not math. Being involved in SWE taught me that engineering is a state of mind. It’s a way of thinking about problems and finding practical solutions. Of being aware of your limitations and your flexibilities. That is what science is about; not about LaPlace transformers… though admittedly, those do come in handy.


I have an inkling that many people believe that because I’ve changed professional environments I’ve stepped outside of the engineering world; but you can’t leave engineering. It gets into your blood and stays with you through life. Or maybe it’s with you from birth. Today, in my library work, I engineer systems constantly; just as I did in childhood. Only the object of my attention has changed. Now, instead of thinking about how to optimize a liquid’s flow through pipes, I’m designing systems to optimize the sharing of memories and, through memories, understanding.


SWE has been a blessing for me from the start. (Thanks mom, for introducing me into the community.) SWE is why I understand the importance of archives and why I (seemingly) stepped out of the engineering field and toward libraries; particularly archives. Archives contain the material deemed “important” by the creating entity. For SWE, it’s the evidence of the notable women who have provided role models for the next generations. We display their images, we collect their stories in oral histories, we remember them through scholarships that buoy up generation after generation of young women into fascinating and rewarding careers. All of this information is stored in the archives. A non-member flipping through our organization’s records would easily discover what is important to us. And so it will continue as long as the records’ format survives. In this way, our archives tell the story of our past AND our present; what has gone before us and what we value now. It’s how we share our identity with those outside the SWE community and how we tell our story to future generations. Our SWE family is relatively small, but what I’ve experienced through it has helped me to understand the importance of records to other communities. (Another unexpected benefit to my membership!)


As we share our histories and experiences through our personal or institutional archives, our knowledge of each other’s value system grows. With this knowledge we can share differences and similarities and begin to understand what it’s like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. This, above all, is the power of the archives and why the attention to records and artifacts is so important. History lies in the interpretation, but story is shaped by the records in the archives.

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