Four Questions for Peter Collopy, Caltech's New Archivist

Meet Caltech's new university archivist and head of collections

Published : Monday, August 14, 2017 | 5:49 AM

Peter Collopy, who joined the Institute in May as archivist and head of special collections. Credit: Caltech

Peter Collopy joined Caltech in May as university archivist and head of special collections. A 32-year-old native of Philadelphia who grew up in Cleveland, Collopy received a bachelor of arts in history at Oberlin College and a master’s and doctorate in history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. From 2015-17 he was a Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Digital Humanities Program at the University of Southern California.

What attracted you to archival science as a field and to Caltech specifically?

I’m primarily a historian of 20th-century science and technology. Caltech is one of the major places where that history has happened. In graduate school, I became interested in the history of computing and the ways the counterculture was experimenting with technology in the 1960s and ’70s, which also pulled me into the field of media studies. I wrote a dissertation about how psychiatrists, social scientists, and artists used the new technology of videotape to experiment with consciousness, and I’ve also written about debates about race in the fields of genetics and anthropology.

For me, these interests come together in the Caltech Archives. The history of science and technology is the content of most of our collections, but there are also all of these interesting questions about media involved. We’re increasingly getting collections in the form of email rather than handwritten or typed letters, for example, and preserving digital materials is inherently different than preserving paper. Paper will last for hundreds of years in a cool room; hard drives and other magnetic media won’t. So digital archives can only exist if we commit to regularly migrating our collections to new media every five or 10 years.

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