More than 10,000 Manhattan Project personnel cards go from print to digital

The nearly 80-year-old cards include employment information of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman and others

October 20, 2022

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.

Robert Oppenheimer’s McKibbin Card and badge photo. Oppenheimer was the Lab’s first director.

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.

Harold W. Agnew’s McKibbin Card and badge photo. Agnew worked on the atomic bomb and eventually served as the Lab’s third director.

What’s in a name?

McKibbin worked as a secretary to J. Robert Oppenheimer in an office in Santa Fe.

Dorothy McKibbin’s own McKibbin Card and photo of her working. She was employed at the Lab from 1943 until her retirement in 1963.

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.

Richard Feynman’s McKibbin Card and badge photo. The brilliant young physicist left Los Alamos after World War II ended and would go on to win a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965.

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.

Edward Teller’s McKibbin Card and badge photo. Teller helped develop both the atomic bomb and hydrogen bomb.

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.

Robert Christy’s McKibbin Card and badge photo. Christy was a former student of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who recruited him to work on the atomic bomb.

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.”

Emilio Segrè’s McKibbin Card and badge photo. Segrè and fellow Los Alamos physicist Owen Chamberlain won the 1959 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the antiproton.