The Acquisition and Cataloging of the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers

Part of Linus Pauling's collection of molecular models, stored in the OSU Libraries Special Collections closed-stack area.

Part of Linus Pauling's collection of molecular models, stored in the OSU Libraries Special Collections closed-stack area.

[Part 2 of 9]

The Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers consist of over 500,000 items requiring some 4,400 linear feet of storage space in the Oregon State University (OSU) Libraries Special Collections. The collection began arriving in Corvallis shortly after Pauling announced, in April 1986, that he would be donating his personal archive to OSU, his undergraduate alma mater. A large initial accession of roughly 100,000 items was received shortly thereafter.

Over the remaining eight years of Pauling’s life, a few thousand documents would be transferred annually to the collection. Perhaps the chief reason why Pauling waited until his eighty-fifth birthday to designate a repository for his papers was the simple fact of his high rate of scientific activity, which continued relatively unabated up to within weeks of his death. (Pauling’s bibliography includes eleven articles which were published posthumously) As such, when selecting files to be shipped, Pauling’s primary criterion was the applicability of a given material set to his current research. Likewise, little ceremony was bestowed upon some of the more valuable artifacts in the collection. For example, Pauling sent his two Nobel medals to OSU without any forewarning – the unmarked parcel in which they were shipped arrived late on a Friday afternoon and sat unprotected in the building’s loading dock until the start of business the next Monday morning.

One particular item, however, did require a great deal of care in transport: Dr. Pauling’s office chalkboard. A tangle of chemical formulas, project notes and scores of names, Pauling’s chalkboard presented an especially daunting shipping and conservation challenge. Novel ideas were solicited from the archival community, but none proved satisfactory – spraying the board with a aerosol sealant would push the chalk dust into the porous surface; protecting the board with Plexiglas would electrostatically draw dust off of the board and toward the glass. Ultimately Ockham’s Razor – one of Pauling’s favorite rules of thumb – won out. A crate with custom foam padding was built and the board was transported with great care taken that it not be tilted out of the horizontal. The method worked. No noticeable dust was lost in transit and to this day the board hangs on display in a locked mock-up of Pauling’s office adjacent to the Special Collections reading room.

The Pauling chalkboard, housed on permanent display in the OSU Libraries Special Collections.

The Pauling chalkboard, housed on permanent display in the OSU Libraries Special Collections.

With Pauling’s death in August 1994, large quantities of his work once again began moving from California to Corvallis – a total summing close to 350,000 items. This mass of paper came primarily from three sources: Pauling’s large oceanside ranch at Big Sur, California; a smaller apartment that Pauling kept on the campus of Stanford University; and the offices of the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine, then located in Palo Alto, California. These major pieces of Pauling’s archive were, however, being shipped to a facility not yet large enough to accommodate them. Indeed, the full Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers would not be housed under a single roof until the winter of 1998, when the Valley Library expansion project multiplied the Special Collections space exponentially.

Early in the cataloging process it was decided that the Pauling Papers were of such significance that it would be prudent, even necessary, to create container listings and finding aids of comprehensive detail. As a result, all of the collection is cataloged, at minimum, on the folder level, and significant portions have been described on the item level. The amount of work that has gone into this process is summed up quite nicely with a simple object lesson. In 1991, to honor Pauling’s ninetieth birthday, a preliminary catalog of holdings, 305 pages in length, was issued. Move ahead fifteen years to the completed Pauling Catalogue, and one is confronted by a tome which runs to 1,852 pages, without illustrations, in eight-point type.

The Pauling Catalogue

The Pauling Catalogue

In an attempt to make these 1,852 pages as user-friendly as possible, The Pauling Catalogue has been organized both by material type and by subject, and is further subdivided into seventeen sections. For the purposes of this publication project, these seventeen sections have been organized into six volumes.  The contents of these six volumes will be the subject of our next post in this series.

The Pauling Catalogue is available for purchase at

One Response

  1. […] many readers of this blog know, Special Collections at Oregon State University Libraries was created in 1986 with Linus […]

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