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I have been reading some historical papers in the field of computer science, economics and game theory. I have noticed that some of the really old ones such as Equilibrium points in n-person games by John Nash (1949) accessed from PNAS has minor inconsistencies and flecks in the ink, indicating it could have been typeset with a commercial cold typesetting machine¹ that is appropriate for the era.

I spoke to a friend about this and they mentioned accessing some of Turing's original papers. They claim that the scan of the paper appears more modern and contains less of these historical artifacts within the typography. This leads me to another assumption: some historical papers were not preserved and we are forced to refer to the oldest known reprints.

Logically, this begs the final question: who handles storage and archival of original scientific papers and how do they do it? The following sub-questions also arise:

  • is this process standardised in any way;
  • if so, is the degree of standardisation dependent on university, country or is it international?
  • Is there any way to verify originality of documents?
  • If there are multiple entities performing the archival duty, where does one look for them?

¹ My assumption could be wrong here as I am not an expert on the history of scientific writing and its typography. Please be sceptical about this.

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    Many (most?) still-exisiting journals have been digitized in the last 30 years. How much effort went into cleaning the scanned versions up varies widely. Many have been OCR'd as well, but not all. Pre-Internet, back issues were bound in thick books and stored down on Level 4 in the library basement where, if you weren't careful, you could be eaten by a grue.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 28, 2022 at 12:49
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    1949 is not really old. People still often read papers from the 19th century and earlier.
    – Oliver882
    Apr 28, 2022 at 20:07

3 Answers 3

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Where are historical research papers stored? Yes, libraries, but there are other archives, including the archives in long-standing large organisations, private archives and libraries, and museums. For example, the Association for Computing Machinery has opened up its first 50 years of publications in celebration of its 75th anniversary.

Who handles storage and archival of original scientific papers and how do they do it? Many large organisations employ specialist archivists or librarians to look after items. They are trained to degree level and beyond and use methods developed over the 100s and 1000s of years libraries and museums have been in existence.

Is this process standardised in any way? There are best practices, well-tried methods, and standards used.

If so, is the degree of standardisation dependent on university, country or is it international? Librarians are very professional with many national and international organisations and publications. Preservation of human knowledge has always been taken extremely seriously. Plenty of examples in (recent) history of madmen trying to destroy knowledge for their benefit.

Is there any way to verify the originality of documents? Go back to the original source. Alternatively, an original copy in an independent library/archive. In the UK there is Legal Deposit. Everything published must be submitted to the British Library.

If there are multiple entities performing the archival duty, where does one look for them? Ask a librarian! Most libraries operate in cooperation with national libraries. Libraries can, and often will, borrow from other libraries. In the UK there are six libraries of legal deposit (The British Library, National Library of Scotland; National Library of Wales; Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford; Cambridge University Library; Library of Trinity College Dublin). Their contents are available to other libraries and visitors.

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    This is a good answer, but I think it could be improved by pointing out that the answers to the main original questions are extremely obvious
    – Oliver882
    Apr 29, 2022 at 21:19
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    There are 6 libraries of deposit in the UK - you have omitted the British Library May 1, 2022 at 14:45
  • Thanks, corrected the list of legal deposit libraries. May 9, 2022 at 9:41
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The answer is libraries and librarians

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    I love this answer because it points out that there are people whose job it is to preserve knowledge :-) Apr 28, 2022 at 18:43
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    It is amazing that people seem to have forgotten about the existence of libraries and librarians
    – Oliver882
    Apr 28, 2022 at 20:08
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    Because they no longer set foot in libraries. I haven't been to my university's library to look at books or articles in years (probably ten or more years). Apr 28, 2022 at 22:12
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    Worth noting libraries have separate functionalities of providing everyday use books in circulation for the public and also preserving archives of old texts. You aren't going to be walking in and checking out an original 1000 year old manuscript. There also exist private and public archives that focus on that archival aspect over the everyday use. So this answer could be fleshed out more or turned into a separate answer.
    – qwr
    Apr 29, 2022 at 5:15
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    @WolfgangBangerth well, yes. But there's a bit of a cycle there. It's become more and more common for university libraries to archive away older journal editions so you can't go and look even if you want to. Found this particularly irritating when dealing with poor digital copies and being then unable to get to the physical copy the library did have!
    – jovisg
    Apr 29, 2022 at 10:35
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A lot of old journals are bound to volumes in the basement of the library. Suprisingly I once retrieved an original paper from 1932 (written in German) at a Singapore varsities scientific library (I expected them to have to order it, but they had it in the basement).

Some libraries switch to microfiche when they need to clear up some storage. Generally there should be one (or two) original copies at the national library in the country where the journal was published. (not every country has a national library though).

For the Nash one, probably any tier 1 university will have an original.

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  • +1 U.S. Universities (that were in existence then) will likely have PNAS all the way back to Volume 1 from 1919.
    – GEdgar
    Apr 29, 2022 at 15:26

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