Organise your files!

Digital continuity in the personal archives of scientists

  • Forschungsdienstleistung
16. April 2019

The digitisation of society and science has many advantages, but it also has its fair share of risks. Preserving documents in the analogue world is relatively straightforward in comparison to the digital world. Data needs to be actively curated so it can endure for decades or even centuries. Paper is patient, data is not. The personal archives of scientists contain important documents and data which need to be safeguarded for posterity. Only if we secure their digital continuity, will the essence of research generated at ETH Zurich survive into the future.

The ETH University Archives: a source of knowledge for researchers

Every year, more than 1,300 researchers from all over the world contact the ETH Zurich University Archives with requests to access documents. Over 300 of them visit our reading room in the ETH Zurich main building as part of their research process. Only in the ETH Zurich University Archives will they discover the answers to their research questions as the documents and data relevant to their questions are located here. In addition to academic publications, the sources in the ETH University Archives are also used for documentaries, newspaper articles and historical novels 1 .

Archival records are unique, irreplaceable and therefore priceless. The original documents and data in the ETH University Archives are not just indispensable sources for the history of science and technology, but also for the emergence of new knowledge, inventions, innovations and new fields of research – not to mention for the history of ETH Zurich.

A selection of scientific publications based on documents from the ETH University Archive.

These unique sources yield numerous publications, both in science and the history of science, including biographies of scientists who left their mark on the 19th and 20th centuries. These include ETH Zurich Nobel Laureates Albert Einstein and Vladimir Prelog.

Personal archives of scientists from the past and present

The personal archives of individual scientists are particularly rich sources of information as they offer a glimpse into their individual mindsets and environments. Letters and, nowadays, emails are particularly valuable as they are often the only possibility to reconstruct, in detail, how scientists developed new concepts, how they exchanged ideas, and how they built professional networks.

The ETH Zurich University Archives specifically collect the personal archives of eminent researchers at ETH Zurich. We visit professors who are about to retire in order to get a general idea of the documents and data present in their offices and laboratories. Over the course of an academic career, many scientists accumulate a lot of material. In close cooperation with the scientists, we decide which documents and data to preserve for posterity.

Nowadays, digitisation is a natural part of the research process. In the past, documents were printed on paper, but today they often only exist in digital form. As a result, our discussions with ETH professors also include the future of their digital documents, emails, and the research data they have stored on their devices and drives.

The threat: the Digital Dark Age

In the analogue world, it was considerably easier to preserve documents for the long term and to keep them accessible to the public. In today’s digital world, information needs to be actively managed to guarantee its survival.

The threat of the Digital Dark Age is real. In our many years of working with scientists in different fields we have identified the following risks:

As a result, research data at ETH Zurich are potentially at risk and might be permanently lost. Losing data is a painful experience for those affected. However, repercussions for the history of science are equally drastic if important documents and data are unavailable to future generations.

ETH Library and the ETH Zurich University Archives have made it their mission to build services to reduce the threat of a Digital Dark Age. We are working on solutions to ensure that future researchers will have access to the personal archives of the past.

The aim: digital continuity

The aim is to ensure digital continuity, i.e. to preserve essential data created by ETH scientists and to make them accessible to the public and archive-users of the future – possibly for eternity.

In order to achieve this aim, IT services, researchers, libraries and archives must work closely together.

Individual scientists also bear considerable responsibility for their documents and data as they have an obligation to abide by the principles of good scientific practice and good governance. This includes the responsible management of research data 2 as well as teaching materials and administrative records 3 .

On the other hand, it is the responsibility of ETH Library and its departments to support all members of ETH Zurich in their efforts towards digital continuity. To this end, the ETH Library provides a range of services tailored to the needs of scientists to help them manage, organise, and preserve their personal archives.

The future and the history of science

Even in the digital age, it is worth collecting the personal archives of eminent scientists from ETH Zurich in order to preserve them for posterity. The documents and data retained in personal archives are of lasting value to science and technology as well as to the history of ETH Zurich.

However, the digital continuity of personal archives can only be achieved through close collaboration with the scientists themselves. Only then will the researchers and the public of the future still have access to the digital information created today.

Organise your personal archives

Over the course of their careers, scientists create vast quantities of documents and data. Below, we present the services provided by ETH Library and the University Archives that support members of ETH Zurich to manage and organise their personal archives – both in paper and digital form.

Support and services for ETH members

The research data management and digital curation team at ETH Library offers courses and consultations providing members of ETH Zurich with the necessary skills to manage research data 4 .

The ETH Zurich University Archives offer individual consultation for professors nearing retirement. Together, we decide the fate of the numerous analogue and digital documents and data accumulated over years of teaching, administration and research.

The Research Collection team advises ETH members on all questions relating to the documentation, publication and archiving of their scientific results on the Research Collection publication platform of ETH Zurich.

Safeguard your publications and research data
Safeguard your publications and research dataOnce scientists leave ETH Zurich, they risk relinquishing access to their own digital publications. However, libraries are allowed to store preprints and postprints of publications. We recommend uploading your publications to ETH Zurich’s Research Collection in order to preserve them in the long term and make them accessible to the public. Research data associated with specific publications can also be uploaded and preserved using this service.Open access - Academic publishing in transition
Safeguard your presentations and lecture notes
Safeguard your presentations and lecture notesHistorians of science are very interested in the different ways in which scientists presented their research to particular audiences, for instance at academic conferences, workshops, lectures at ETH Zurich or at adult education centres. Today, presentations usually entail slideshows or are distributed to students in PDF form. Lecturers at ETH Zurich are asked to upload their lecture notes and slides to the Research Collection or to publish them on their ETH Zurich website.
Safeguard your emails
Safeguard your emailsLetters are particularly rich sources for the history of science. They offer a glimpse into the thought processes and networks of scientists. Nowadays, emails are generally the most important medium of personal communication between scientists. We recommend scientists actively curate their emails. Upon leaving ETH Zurich, every scientist should make a conscious selection of their emails which are of long-term importance. The ETH Zurich University Archives offers support with the transfer of emails.
Safeguard your CV, your publication lists and awards
Safeguard your CV, your publication lists and awardsBiographical information on individual scientists (e.g. CV, recommendation letters, publication lists, awards, grants, job references) are an important source for the history of science since these documents allow us to retrace scientists’ career steps. Today, CVs and publication lists are usually published on the official ETH website (of the institute, laboratory or chair). The ETH University Archives regularly collects and archives the official ETH Zurich websites in the ETH Web Archive. If a website is to be deactivated or extensively revised, we recommend contacting the ETH University Archives as soon as possible.ETH Web Archive


Digital Continuity:

• Tara Zachary Laver: In a Class by Themselves: Faculty Papers at Research University Archives and Manuscript Repositories. In: The American Archivist. 2003, Vol 66, p. 159-196

• Society of American Archivists: Donating Your Personal or Family Records to a Repository:

• Harvard University Archives: “Help Build Harvard’s History!”

• American Institute of Physics: “Saving personal papers and archival records in physics and allied fields”:


  1. For example: The film Gateways to New York by Swiss director Martin Witz about the Swiss-American bridge engineer Othmar H. Ammann, the novel Wir sehen uns am Ende der Welt by Dutch author Miek Zwamborn or Short films by students on the global network of Zurich-based scientists and their scientific collections. ↩︎
  2. ETH Zurich Guidelines for Research Integrity. ↩︎
  3. Weisung über die Archivierung von Dokumenten der ETH Zürich. (German only) ↩︎
  4. An introduction with useful information and best practices on managing all manner of research data and documents is provided on ETH Library’s Digital Curation website. ↩︎