Can we put a price on words of wisdom?

January 11, 2002

Geoff Watts asks whether the Wellcome Trust should have paid nearly £2 million for Francis Crick's papers and ponders the impact of email on the future of archives.

The alarm was sounded about six months ago, triggered by a piece in Nature on Jeremy Norman, a rare-book dealer in California. Norman has accumulated a unique archive of documents connected with the history of molecular biology. Among the luminaries whose material is stored on his shelves are James Watson, Max Delbruck, Maurice Wilkins - and Francis Crick.

"Late last summer we became aware that Crick was in negotiation about his archives with a consortium of private collectors (including Norman) in California," says David Pearson, head of the Wellcome Trust Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine. "We also became aware that there was a window of opportunity to make an alternative offer. We had two independent valuers look at the archive. They compiled reports on what was in it and what it was worth."

The trust concluded that the archive had "major heritage importance" and, in a joint purchase with the Heritage Lottery Fund, bought the lot - five filing cabinets of letters, papers and notebooks. The deal cost each partner £904,000.

Did they get value for money?

The material includes 23 volumes of Crick's lab notebooks from 1948 to the early 1960s, correspondence from 1953 onwards with Watson and other leading researchers, and a typescript of Watson's Honest Jim - the first version of what became The Double Helix - annotated with Crick's objections.

What the academic comm-unity most needs is free access to these documents. Whether this would have been available without Wellcome's intervention is a matter of speculation. Norman had assured Nature that his archive would be available to science historians. Either way, access to Crick's papers is now assured. Crick retains copyright for the duration of his life: thereafter it goes to Wellcome. Which leaves the vulgar question of cash. A previous acquisition of papers plunged the Heritage Lottery Fund into an acrimonious row. Having paid more than £10 million to a Churchill family trust for Winston Churchill's papers, the fund was assailed by critics complaining that material of this kind should have come to the nation by right.

Thus far, says Pearson, the trust has received no complaints about its Crick purchase. "The papers are unquestionably important," he says. "They are a unique resource that documents the working of a scientist who is important not only because he made a major breakthrough but because he has been a very influential figure in the scientific community generally.

"The ideas he came up with after 1953 were not always right, but they were always important in shaping where things went. Preserving the documentation that records that is essential."

Against this must be set doubts about how much new knowledge will emerge. Some of the material has already been combed for projects such as the BBC television film Life Story , based on the discovery of the double helix, and Horace Freeland Judson's 1979 history of molecular biology, The Eighth Day of Creation . If there are revelations to be had, it seems likely they'll be in the nature of gap-filling rather than opening up new territory.

So is the archive worth the best part of £2 million?

Pearson tackles the question rhetorically. "How much is a house worth? How much is a book worth? It is worth what someone will pay for it on the open market. If we had not purchased this material, it would have gone to a private collector. And we have good grounds for believing that private collectors were encouraging Crick to accept a slightly higher offer than we were making."

As for the criticism that Crick should be handing over his stuff gratis, Pearson says: "He owns it. We can encourage him to donate, but if he says, 'I know it has this value and I wish to exercise my right to sell itI'" Crick has declined to speak to the press about the Wellcome acquisition, but he has issued a statement. "The money will go to my heirs - three children and six grandchildren - all of whom seem to be in need of financial assistance. Unfortunately, almost half will go in tax as it counts as income."

The future of archiving, however, is overshadowed by an electronic question mark. A significant part of the archives of most scholars, including Crick, has been their correspondence. Nowadays there is email. One flick of the delete button and a message is gone. How difficult will this notoriously ephemeral means of communication make life for future historians? "There is a lot of discussion going on among professionals," Pearson says. "But people are waking up to the need to preserve digital records in the way we've traditionally preserved paper." This may be true of institutions, but what of individuals? It is difficult to imagine people preserving their old emails in the way they might their letters.

As for the future of the Crick archive, Wellcome hopes to open it to a wider public through exhibitions. Pearson says: "2003 is the 50th anniversary of the double helix. The initial thinking is to have something more imaginative than just the papers. Maybe an exhibition in which artists can respond to them as well."

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