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Some sciences like geology, astronomy or demography require a time scale of observation and study of phenomena that lasts longer than a human life span – and even that of civilizations. These “Sciences of the Archives” rely on the contribution of scientists who store their data and knowledge for the generations following after them. In this video LORRAINE DASTON explains how an interdisciplinary group of scholars investigated which conditions enable such scientific endeavors that depend on long-lived collections. They studied historical sources and how these records are kept to identify patterns across millennia and cultures. The findings indicate that a key driver for the people involved in building these archives is an almost utopian vision: The believe that their discipline will continue to make use of the archives and that future insights will depend on these records.


Lorraine Daston is Director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Furthermore, she is a regular Visiting Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, Honorary Professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin and Permanent Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study Berlin. A historian of science, her current research focus includes the emergence of Big Science and Big Humanities in the context of nineteenth-century archives, and the relationship between moral and natural orders.
For her work, Daston received many prestigious prizes, among them the Sarton Medal of the History of Science Society, and the Lichtenberg Medal of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities.


Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

Founded in 1994, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) in Berlin is one of more than 80 research institutes administered by the Max Planck Society. The Institute is dedicated to the study of the history of science, aiming to understand scientific thinking and practice as historical phenomena from a variety of methodological and interdisciplinary perspectives. Our research draws on the reflective potential of the history of science to address current challenges in scientific scholarship, exploring the changing meaning of fundamental scientific concepts as well as how cultural developments shape scientific practices. The Institute’s projects span all eras of human history and a multitude of cultures globally, ranging from the origins of continuity systems in Mesopotamia to present-day science in China, Renaissance natural history, and the past of quantum mechanics. The Institute also draws on the reflective potential of the history of science to address current challenges in scientific scholarship.

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Original publication

The Sciences of the Archives

Daston Lorraine J.
Published in 2012

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