By Julie Miller, librarian-archivist, National Security Research Center
Los Alamos National Laboratory recently digitized a collection of more than 10,000 cards containing the personnel information of Manhattan Project staff, including famous scientists, such as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, Emilio Segrè and Edward Teller. These nearly 80-year-old cards can now be accessed electronically by Lab archivists after a several-months-long effort to digitally preserve pieces of the Laboratory’s earliest history by the National Security Research Center.
Called “McKibbin Cards,” after Dorothy McKibbin, who was known as the gatekeeper of Los Alamos because she was often the first point of contact for new hires, these cards have become symbolic of Los Alamos when the world’s greatest minds secretly gathered to create the first atomic bomb and end World War II. The goal in digitizing them is to make them accessible on the Lab’s unclassified network, according to NSRC collections management team leader Patricia Cote.
What are they?
McKibbin Cards are index cards used between 1943 and 1952 that documented information such as the employee’s name, marital status and last day of work at the Lab. Many cards include more detail such as salary, address, work location and family information. McKibbin created each index card with a mechanical typewriter.
What’s in a name?
McKibbin worked as a secretary to J. Robert Oppenheimer in an office in Santa Fe.
Why are these materials noteworthy?
“We hear a lot about the scientific history of the people of the Manhattan Project era,” said Cote, “The McKibbin Cards provide a personal, more human perspective on these individuals. Plus, they are among the Lab’s oldest unclassified records. Preserving these relics means preserving our history.”
Why digitize the McKibbin Cards?
Digitization provides access to the information on the cards while preventing handling of the fragile and valuable historical original documents, such as exposure to light, humidity and contact with human hands and germs. Every direct interaction with archival records reduces their life. Because it is such a specialized and labor-intensive process, not all the NSRC’s tens of millions of materials are digitized; staff often rediscover valuable information, such as these McKibbin Cards, when searching the physical collections. It is then prioritized and digitized accordingly.
Who uses these?
NSRC staff routinely refer to the McKibbin Cards as primary source material to obtain background information for research and publications. For example, approximately 50 McKibbin Cards were accessed by researchers for a forthcoming NSRC book on the Lab’s Manhattan Project-era Nobel Laureates, which will be published in 2023.
How was the digitization project completed?
Diego Corral-Ramos, collections management contractor, conducted the digitization and Miranda Vigil, collections management staff, cataloged the collection. Because of the large volume, it took about a month to complete.
How can I access this information?
“Right now, there isn’t a plan to release the entire collection; they will just be accessible to the NSRC staff, who can access them for research requests as needed,” NSRC Director Riz Ali said. “But we are working to make available online a few of the more famous scientists’ McKibbin Cards because they are often requested.”