Famed scientist’s papers, artifacts arrive at library

L.A. Cicero Department of Special Collections librarians

Glynn Edwards, principal manuscript processing librarian, and Roberto Trujillo, head of the Department of Special Collections, examine papers included in the material donated by Gould’s widow, Rhonda Shearer.

L.A. Cicero Historia Naturae

This edition of Historia Naturae, the first and only edition in Latin, was published in 1635. The author was a Jesuit named Juan Eusebio Nieremberg. Stephen Jay Gould, below, lectured at Stanford in November 1998.

L.A. Cicero gould box

One of the many boxes of artifacts (“realia” in the librarians’ lexicon) accumulated by Stephen Jay Gould, the renowned Harvard paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, over the course of his career. Each specimen, whether clam, coral, mollusk or starfish, is carefully identified on an accompanying tag.

Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould

Musty old books with penciled scribbling in the margins. Piles of seashells and sand dollars, fistfuls of fish vertebrae and sea urchin fragments, and some chunks of slate with plant fossils peeking from between gray sheets of metamorphosed clay. And, in a squat glass jar that once held Dromedary brand fire-roasted pimientos (net wt. 4 oz.) reside the remains of a single small clam, the halves of its brown shell still hinged together. The accompanying label states: "P-town 1970."

Though some of these artifacts may seem like the sort of detritus any of us could pick up during a trip to the beach, these were some of the raw materials for the fertile mind of Stephen Jay Gould, the renowned Harvard paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, whose ability to generate controversy with his theories and opinions was equaled by his talent for bringing science to the public in a way that left readers informed and eager for more.

During his career, Gould wrote 300 consecutive essays for Natural History, the monthly magazine of the American Museum of Natural History, and more than 20 books, many of them bestsellers. He also assembled what he believed was a definitive library of the history of early paleontology, said Rhonda Shearer, Gould's widow.

Now, the collection of books, papers and artifacts that helped inform his writing and teaching is, for the most part, in the Stanford University Libraries, with the balance expected to arrive soon. It is an immense amount of material.

"It's a great acquisition," said University Librarian Michael Keller. "Steve Gould was a tremendous popularizer of science, and he was, more importantly, a deep scientist. He had a big, broad mind, working on lots of different interesting problems."

Gould owned approximately 1,500 rare, antiquarian books, some dating back to the late 1400s. His library of more contemporary books numbers roughly 8,000 volumes. Although the total number of papers has yet to be determined, the librarians working on the collection estimate they will stretch more than 500 linear feet—a good deal longer than a football field.

"It's super cool," said Roberto Trujillo, head of the libraries' Department of Special Collections. "Stephen Jay Gould was a pretty significant public intellectual at the very least. And his collections of rare books are quite amazing."

Perhaps even more surprising than the books he collected is what he did with them.

"He actually used them, and he annotated on many of them in pencil, in the margins," Trujillo said. "He didn't really treat them as artifacts, he treated them as a working research library, and it is clear that is what he did, even though they're really quite amazing rare books."

So how did all the books, papers and artifacts from a scientist who spent his professional career at Harvard University end up at Stanford?

"Stanford was the only institution really prepared to make a commitment to digitize and cross-link all of Steve's work, and this is something that Steve wanted," said Shearer. "Even though he called himself a Luddite and really had anxiety about technology, he saw that for ideas to compete, they really had to be out on the Internet."

Keller said the plan is to digitize Gould's articles, as well as the sources from which he drew both inspiration and information, and cross-link the source materials to the endnotes and citations in his writing. The goal will be to make all of Gould's papers freely available over the Internet to anyone who wants to see them, whether schoolchildren or scholars.

"From very detailed explorations with other institutions, Stanford was head and shoulders above all the rest in its ability to fulfill such a promise, as well as be in a technical position of expertise with the ability to execute," Shearer said.

The technical challenges of designing a system to provide ready cross-referencing of all Gould's papers and books are substantial, Keller said. But, "the models of what we want to do and the scope of what we would like to do, they are all actually out there in our own experiences here at Stanford," he said.

"We see [this project] as a kind of model of what could be done with the emanations of really brilliant scientists, and we certainly have that same ambition to work on many of Stanford's own leading thinkers in the sciences and across all the disciplines," Keller said.

Even though Gould was not on the Stanford faculty, his books, papers and artifacts are a good fit with the History of Science Program at Stanford, said Henry Lowood, curator for the libraries' History of Science and Technology Collections.

"His writing is particularly conducive to this kind of analysis where you might want to look at the different sources for the ideas in them," Lowood said. "He could take a line of thought and apply it to different topics in a way that I think might have been partially the secret of his success as a very well read and beloved writer, even by many people who aren't scientists."

Within the world of science, Gould is probably best known for the theory of punctuated equilibrium that he developed with Niles Eldredge, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Until then, evolution was generally thought to progress slowly, with changes occurring in a series of steps over time that eventually produced new species or organisms. But Gould and Eldredge suggested that evolution moved in episodic, rapid bursts of change, sparked by things such as asteroid impacts or massive episodes of volcanism, that served to kill off existing species and allow surviving ones the chance to evolve into the newly vacated ecological niches.

The theory sparked considerable controversy when it was introduced, some of which persists. Though many researchers now accept that such bursts of evolution can occur, there is still debate over how extensively they figure into evolutionary change.

Lowood said that a big part of the appeal of the collection will be making the connections among all of Gould's different work. "You can get some pretty interesting insights into the process of his writing and the various ways in which he was influenced by his reading and so on," he said.

Gould's collection is so vast that even he needed help to keep track of it all.

"He even had a little map to his library that we found in his desk," Trujillo said. "His library in his office at Harvard was quite a large space and there were 8,000 volumes in there, so short of cataloging each book, how do you keep track? He had this little map on an 8-and-a-half-by-10 sheet of paper that just said where things are. And he made little notes; he kept his books in different categories."

Cataloging, scanning, digitizing and cross-linking such an immense collection is going to take some time. "I can't imagine this being less than a three-year initiative," Trujillo said. Right now the librarians are doing a preliminary survey of the collection, just trying to get an idea of what it contains. Not every piece of paper in the collection will be cataloged and digitized, so a lot of decisions will have to be made. But at a minimum, everything will be characterized down to the folder level. The artifacts also will be cataloged.

Cross-linking the collection in a usable fashion is one of the bigger challenges of the project, Lowood said. "How can you make it possible for somebody to intelligently search a digital collection, short of just having them browse through thousands and thousands of documents? Can efficiencies be brought to that process?

"I think the appeal of the collection will be to uncover where those ideas came from," he said. "A forensic sort of thing."

Recreating the twists and turns that lead to Gould's different writings should be an interesting process, as the nature of his collection of artifacts suggests. Anyone who found inspiration in items as disparate as a small piece of wood riddled with termite holes or the eye lenses of a flying fish (still stuffed into a small black tube with a tissue stuffed in the open end) probably had an interesting way of looking at things.