First-Hand:Nancy Perlman


Reflections on the IEEE History Center (March 1981-December 1982)

When I arrived at the IEEE's Center for the History of Electrical Engineering to begin work as its first archivist, the facility was located in a suite of rooms on the executive floor of the Engineering Societies Building at 345 East 47th Street, across from the United Nations complex. Dr. Robert Friedel, the first Center director, and Elizabeth Hayt, who would ably assist him and me in a variety of projects, were the staff. My general mission was that of the History Center itself: to collect, identify, preserve, promote, and provide access to the history of IEEE and its predecessors, AIEE and IRE. More specifically I was hired to gain control of the organization’s extant historical records through inventories and a catalogue, and to create a blueprint for an IEEE Archives as an entity of the History Center and the officially recognized collecting arm of the organization itself. This document, entitled “IEEE Archives Preliminary Report,” was presented to the IEEE History Committee at its meeting on April 6, 1981. There are copies of the Report in the IEEE Archives that the History Center administers.

Armed with a combined Masters in American History and a certificate from the inaugural Program in Archival Management, Historical Society Administration, and Historical Editing in the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University; and a one-time Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in Archives which funded my work for a year as Program Practicum instructor and development archivist for the newly created Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives in the Tamiment Institute Library at NYU’s Bobst Library, I hoped I was up for the challenges awaiting me at the IEEE History Center.

At the time of my arrival the History Center had initially amassed a disparate collection of documents and photographs - as well as artifacts and memorabilia from or about the early years of predecessors, AIEE and IRE, together with a black binder containing an extensive list of all of the extant merger documents of the two organizations - a project that George Sell conducted before I arrived. These items were housed in the outer office space of the History Center, in the exhibit case on our floor and as part of an exhibit in the lobby of the Engineering Societies Building.

This collection was the starting point for our effort to capture the location and identify, inventory, and catalogue the historical records held in the Engineering Societies Building, the IEEE storage facility at Piscataway, New Jersey, and ultimately in IEEE Chapters and Societies in the United States and throughout the world. Indeed on a visit to Israel to my son studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem under the Junior Year Study Abroad Program, I arranged beforehand to do a records survey at the IEEE Israel Section office.

Later there would be the wonderful gift of a collection of oral history tapes of giants of the engineering profession. Originally housed in the Smithsonian Institution, the tapes were brought to the History Center by Bernard “Barney” Finn, associate curator of electrical collections at the Smithsonian at the time. The collection formed the nucleus of an outstanding and ongoing oral history project of the History Center. What an amazing and unforgettable opportunity it was for me to review the tapes and listen to the voices of those great pioneers of engineering history relate their experiences and achievements in their own words!

I had been in my position at IEEE for about a year when Emily Sirjane, longtime and greatly respected staff director of corporate services, asked me to direct her special funded project to microfilm the IEEE Corporate Records and those of predecessors AIEE and IRE. This was a tremendous undertaking, the more so I realized as time went on. The documents bound in ledgers were prohibited from leaving headquarters so the contracted company had to bring their equipment and technician to us. The location of the filming was a small space somewhere in the building; I do not recall on what floor.

We overcame countless difficulties and “do overs” on the way to completing the project, but complete it we did and the inventory I produced is on file at the History Center. I trust it has been useful in converting the film to an improved and more accessible digitized version. I do remember how surprised and honored I was to be chosen by Ms. Sirjane to manage the project, however difficult but challenging it proved to be; it was excellent preparation for the career challenges that lay ahead for me. I liked and respected her a great deal – as did countless others.

I remember how few women there were in the profession then, although there was a Society of Women Engineers and I did meet some of their very impressive members. I met many people during my time in the organization: members of the very supportive History Committee, several members of the organization at large who stopped in to the History Center to say, “hello,” IEEE administrators and staff - and executive director, Eric Herz. What a lovely gentleman he was! I had occasion to talk with him at some length from time to time.

From the beginning, although I assisted Dr. Friedel with some of his research and writing projects and provided research assistance for a growing number of researchers, we worked in tandem: I with my archival functions, and he with his writing and management duties. We spent a good deal of time together planning and implementing an expanded storage facility for the archives, and more office space - on a lower floor in the Engineering Societies building. Even in the short time I was there we outgrew our original quarters – a sure sign of the success of the History Center endeavor.

And a word about the great Engineering Societies Library and the treasured hours I spent in research there. It was one of the most impressive libraries I have had the pleasure to experience. And how convenient – right in the same building! Some years ago I had occasion to need its services and I finally located them at the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City Missouri.

I had not realized when I began writing this just how much I remember of my relatively brief time at IEEE. But in the interests of space I have confined myself to the highlights and a few of my general recollections. I am very glad to know from Alex Magoun who contacted me and asked that I write this very personal history that the IEEE History Center is going strongly forward not only to collect, preserve, and promote the history of IEEE, but most importantly to make it accessible for all who want and need to use this rich resource. Happy 40th anniversary IEEE History Center!

Respectfully submitted, Nancy Perlman First Archivist IEEE History Center (March 1981-December 1982)