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Atomic Energy Commission Depository Libraries

August 7, 2019

August 7, 2019

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by Deb Jerison

One of the head scratchers when trying to find information about the work done by nuclear weapons workers is how to locate documents.  The Department of Energy (DOE), and its earlier incarnations, never had a central storage area for documents.  Although the law required that unclassified documents be available to the public it didn’t require them to be easily found.

Someone needing documents from DOE can, of course, always do a Freedom of Information Act request for them.  But this only works if the requester knows the names of the documents or can narrowly describe what they are looking for.  The National Archives hold some DOE records at various locations around the country, as does the Federal Depository Library system.  Locating a document in either of these two systems is definitely challenging!

Back in 1946 when the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), precursor to today’s Department of Energy, was established, it was to promote the “utilization of atomic energy for peaceful purposes to the maximum extent consistent with the common defense and security and with the health and safety of the public.”  After much debate the AEC was placed under civilian rather than military control.  It was determined that as many unclassified/declassified documents as possible would be made available to the public.

The AEC asked the American Library Association Board to designate certain libraries around the country as AEC Depository Libraries.   For the most part the AEC left the libraries alone to decide how to handle these documents with the provision that “any person who wishes access to AEC reports may consult them in the library.”

The AEC Depository Libraries were in operation until the AEC morphed into the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) in 1974, although many libraries stopped participating in 1969 when the AEC began charging a subscription fee for new documents.  It has been estimated that about three quarters of the states had at least one AEC Depository Library and that these libraries probably held about 400,000 documents.

So what happened to the documents in the AEC Depository Libraries?  It turns out that not even many of the libraries that housed this collection knows.  Some libraries combined them with their Federal Depository Library collections.  Others disposed of them in various ways.  Some just lost track of them.  A Penn State librarian, Linda Musser decided to see what she could learn about the status of the collections.

Ms. Musser learned, after surveying 25% of the libraries that had housed the AEC Depository documents that many of them had trouble locating their collection although they believed they still held the documents and that most provided no online record of what documents they still held.

It has been 73 years since the AEC Depository Libraries were established.  Just goes to show how quickly we lose track of our history and valuable resources.

However, the Technical Report Archive and Image Library (TRAIL) has been working on collecting some of the AEC Depository Library documents, indexing them and making them available digitally.  So perhaps we will be able to access this valuable resource again.