Five Questions with Digital Archivist Trevor Owens

The following is a guest post from Trevor Owens, former Special Curator for the Library of Congress Science Literacy Initiative and current Digital Archivist in the Office of Strategic Initiatives. You can find several Teaching with the Library of Congress posts by Trevor Owens here.

Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with.

Trevor Owens (right) talking to Bill Nye at the opening of the Sagan Papers. Photograph by Marjee Owens

Trevor Owens (right) talking to Bill Nye at the opening of the Sagan Papers. Photograph by Marjee Owens

I’m a Digital Archivist with NDIIPP, the Library of Congress program focused on building national capacity for ensuring long term access to digital information. However, of more interest to readers here, last year I had the privilege to serve as the Special Curator for the online collection Finding Our Place in the Cosmos: From Galileo to Sagan and Beyond, a collection of 327 items, 110 of them from The Seth Macfarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, and the other 217 items from across the breadth of the Library of Congress collections. This was, unquestionably, the coolest thing I have ever had the chance to work on. In all honesty, it is likely to be the coolest thing I ever get the chance to work on.

Do you have a favorite item or two from the Finding our Place in the Cosmos collection?

The Things that Live on Mars

It is hard to choose, but I love a lot of the representations and visions of what Martians would be like. So. The Trailer for  Flight to Mars from 1951, or H.G.Wells’ 1908 story of  “The Things that Live on Mars” in Cosmopolitan Magazine. For a very long time, humans were obsessed with the idea of Martians, and I love that the collection contains Carl Sagan’s explanation of why in this draft of the voice over for an episode of his television series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Martians! draft script for Cosmos episode 5”.

Share a time when an item from the collections sparked your curiosity.

I realize that you said curiosity, but the feeling I ran into most in working with the Sagan materials is awe. When you lay the papers out in front of you from someone’s life you see the traces of our personality and our humanity in one fell swoop. Sunrise, sunset.

I spent a day or two out of every week working behind the scenes in the Manuscript Division’s prep section. At that point, it was like being in a football field of materials from the Sagan papers as the archivists were working to arrange the collection. In my little work area I was allowed to poke around in the boxes as they had come in. It was amazing to pull out a set of folders of correspondence and literally lay out someone’s life and relationships in front of you. I’ll give one example.

David Grinspoon had been mentored by Carl Sagan. He also happened to be a scholar in residence here at the Library of Congress while I was working with the collection. When I went through David and Carl’s correspondence I found a whole series of letters of recommendation Carl had written for him. One for an undergraduate application to Brown, one recommending him for his doctoral studies at the University of Arizona, and another for his  appointment at the University of Colorado. In each letter, Carl focused on different aspects of David’s work and character. In these letters, from 1976 to 1988, you get a feel for what Sagan thought were the characteristics of a scientist that he appreciated in David. You lay these out in front of you and see someone go from a student to a colleague. I will always remember when I sat down with David and handed him copies of these letters to review. I think I saw him tear up a bit. It’s a bit of a “this is your life” moment to see yourself mature through the eyes of your mentor.

Tell us about a memorable interaction with an educator and the Library of Congress collections?

One of the most rewarding parts of working with the Carl Sagan papers is captured in the picture accompanying this post. In grade school I was inspired by Bill Nye the Science Guy’s television show. For people in my generation, his stories and visual representations of science are really iconic. While working with the Carl Sagan papers I was thrilled to be able to look through some of Nye and Sagan’s correspondence. Nye had taken a class with Sagan, and in much the same way Nye had been an inspiration to explore and communicate science to many people, he had at least in part picked up that passion and approach to the wonder of science from Sagan. So it was a lot of fun to hold and flip through some of their correspondence form when Nye was trying to get The Science Guy show off the ground. In keeping with a lot of Sagan’s feedback on things, there was a mixture of praise and excitement and critical focus on making sure that he got the science right.

Finding Nye’s papers was already a memorable interaction, but it was really hit home when I was able to meet him in person at the event for the opening of the Sagan papers. There I was, presenting items from the Sagan papers to folks at the event when Bill Nye came through. Nye ended up telling those of us presenting materials at the event about how a page we had open in Carl Sagan’s college notebooks clearly had a young Carl Sagan trying to work out a set of equations about time travel. Just meeting someone who had a show that impacted and taught you so much is memorable. Beyond that though, in keeping with the whole experience of working with Carl Sagan’s papers, the encounter hit home just how personal the tradition of science is. How one individual can find the joy and wonder of science and imagination and impart that on someone who then imparts it on others. In that vein, it’s a real testament to the power of Sagan’s legacy that his passion is carried on by science educators across the world who are running with it.

What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the materials that you work with?

Science is not a set of facts; it’s a communal process of imagination, exploration and argumentation grounded in evidence collected from the natural world. To this end, historical texts, images, models, documents and images are an amazing resource for teaching science as a process and way of knowing.

I think this point comes out across each of the previous teachers blog posts I’ve written. Whether it’s about imagining the future, or spaceships, or models of eclipses, or planets that we thought were planets that we no longer think are planets or models of the solar system, each of these explorations underscores how primary sources are invaluable at prompting the kinds of reflections in learners to help them come to see how knowledge is produced and shared thorough science.

Understanding the how of science is essential for participating in a modern democracy and I believe strongly that there is a great role for libraries, archives and museums to play in helping provide resources to support this kind of science literacy education. As such, I’m absolutely thrilled that folks here at the Library of Congress are excited about making our collections useful and used by science educators.

One Comment

  1. Neme Alperstein
    July 17, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    Mr. Owens offers insights that underscore a profoundly human and kind aspect to both Sagan and Nye, figures who have become larger than life in science and science education. His definition of science and its essential role in a modern democracy are spot on with regard to how we learn from primary sources. I, too, am excited about how LOC and its collections can be used by science educators. Thank you, Trevor Owens. This will be required reading by my students.

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