Living on the West Coast as I did for many years, my ability to visit the legendary Asimov Archive at Boston University was extremely limited. (It still is, as I’m only a thousand kilometers closer to Boston than I used to be.) In late March 1999, however, I was in Boston while participating in the Fourteenth International Unicode Conference and, while there, I took advantage of the opportunity to visit the archive. I made a follow-up visit in October 1999 while back in Boston to participate in ATypI, an annual typography conference.
Background and Location
The archive started in the mid-1960’s when Howard B. Gotlieb of Boston University’s library asked Asimov if he would be willing to contribute his old papers. That was fine with Asimov. Just so long as he himself didn’t have to store all this material, it was all one with him whether it went to the Library or was burned in the barbecue pit in his back yard. (Gotlieb nearly had a heart attack when he found out that Asimov had been burning his old papers. The catalog in the Archive says that Asimov “claims to have thrown most of his papers away” prior to 1965. Did they not believe him?)
The Archive lives in the Special Collections Department of Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University, just off of Commonwealth Avenue. There is more than just Asimoviana to be found there. They specialize in Twentieth Century American authors in general and have extensive collections of other authors such as W. Somerset Maugham.
To use the archive, you make an appointment and, once there, you have to fill out an application. The material there is irreplaceable and much of it is delicate, so the staff takes due care to make sure that you’re a legitimate researcher and that you will handle the material appropriately. You’re allowed to bring in a laptop, for example, but must leave bags and coats outside. Lint-free gloves must be worn when actually handling the non-book materials.
And yes, some of the Asimov material really is quite delicate. Tear sheets from pulp magazines from the 1940’s and 1950’s, for example, are badly oxidized and starting to disintegrate around the edges. Carbons are sometimes written on rather fragile onion-skin paper and are liable to tear. Be careful with it!
You also need to indicate that you will honor copyright and other legal restrictions. This includes privacy considerations for Asimov’s correspondents. In order to publish my correspondence with Asimov, for example—mostly embarrassingly gushing fan mail dating from my early teens—you’d need to get my written permission as well as permission from Asimov’s estate.
A staff member is assigned to be your gofer: You yourself may not go into the stacks. You’re handed a thick sheaf of papers describing the Archive’s contents, its Inventory. Once you’ve perused it—and that in and of itself will take hours, as it’s 381 pages long—you let the staff member know what boxes you need and they’ll be brought to you. One at a time may sit on your table while you look through it carefully.
(I didn’t ask, but I’m sure that this is a precaution against accidentally putting stuff back in the wrong box. If ever any of this material gets misfiled, finding it again may be nigh unto impossible.)
The staff, by the way, was wonderful. They were all friendly and helpful. They did a terrific job at helping whenever I needed it and providing what I was looking for. Particular kudos go to Shawn Noel, who is the staff member responsible for the Asimov archive, and Katherine Kominis, the Assistant Director for Rare Books, who knows how to find any of Asimov’s published volumes from the BU collection.
The only fly in the ointment was one of the other patrons. He was dressed in the regular fashion, trousers tight at the waist, loose at the ankle, and color-striped down the seam of each leg. He wore an ordinary Textron shirt, open collar, seam zipped, and ruffled at the wrist. There was something about the way he stood, the way he held his head, the calm and unemotional lines of his broad, high-cheekboned face, the careful set of his short bronze hair lying flatly backward and without a part, that marked him off from the ordinary man. He kept glancing over my shoulder as I worked and I would have sworn I could hear a faint metallic whirring sound whenever he came near. There’s more to say about him, but for some reason I can’t bring myself to actually say it.
But I digress.
I had originally asserted that they did not have a full set of Asimov’s books at Boston University. This turned out to be false and was based on my having asked the wrong staff member. Ed Seiler set me right on this. In fact, the library has a possibly complete set of Asimov’s published books; they may be missing some of the later books, such as those that escaped listing in I. Asimov: A Memoir. They also have a fairly full set of foreign editions. Basically, anything Asimov got a copy of, he sent along to them. They are not, however, in the Asimov Archive proper, which may have been the source of confusion.
Don’t use the library catalogue to find out what they’ve got; it doesn’t list everything. Check with the staff if there’s a particular published book you want to see. Give them as much information as you can; Dr. Kominis is knowledgable but not omnipotent, and given the amount of Asimoviana to look through, finding a particular volume can sometimes be a non-trivial task.
You can also take advantage of a book titled Isaac Asimov: an annotated bibliography of the Asimov collection at Boston University, published by Greenwood Press in 1995, Z8045.59.G74. They’ve got a copy and that will help you find the books you’re after.
The plus side is that the books are generally not as delicate as the other material, and you don’t need the gloves when you read them.
The Archive proper consists of 459 boxes, each organized into files full of papers and some magazines. The boxes are currently being renumbered, and so there is some theoretical possibility of having trouble finding exactly what you want; I myself had none. The boxes are organized in three sections:
The first section consists of materials sent to BU from 1965 through July 1972 (boxes 1 through 159). This material was processed and stored as it arrived. The Inventory includes a summary of the contents by location.
The second section consists of materials sent from August 1972 through November 6, 1981 (boxes 160-320). It was processed and stored as a group in the 1980’s.
The third section consists of the remainder, sent from November 6, 1981 through April 1993 (boxes 321-459).
There is a great deal of material here. Manuscripts, for example. This includes the original hand-written sections of I. Asimov: A Memoir (catalogued under its original title of The Scenes of Life, together with the numbered list of books 1 through 469. There are galleys of books. “Tear sheets,” with copies of Asimov’s stories as they actually appeared in magazines (e.g., “Hostess”). Letters are there: tons of letters. Letters from family, letters from friends, letters from fans. Somewhere in all that are the letters I wrote the Good Doctor over the years. (I didn’t have the time or inclination to look them up; just as well, as I would have been sorely tempted to destroy them.)
The manuscripts include a number of interesting unpublished items. While the Asimov’s first attempt at a third Elijah Baley-R. Daneel Olivaw mystery is gone, along with any material on “Lucky Starr and the Snows of Pluto”, as they antedate 1965, we still have manuscripts for “Only a Light-year”, “A Short History of Astronomy” (which was cannibalized for The Universe), “Words from Greek History” (which became The Greeks: A Great Adventure) and other “lost” Asimov titles. Similarly, there are copies of stories and essays that Asimov himself never reprinted: “The Portable Star” and “Love Those Zeroes” among the ones I looked up.
There are even materials not by the Good Doctor, such as a copy of the BBC script for their “Caves of Steel” broadcast and other adaptations, or materials about Asimov.
(A note: There are two scripts for “The Caves of Steel” in the archive. One is the BBC script, which is by Terry Nation and was actually broadcast in the mid-1960’s [see the FAQ for details]. The other is a proposed script for a “Caves of Steel” movie. I didn’t have time to do more than leaf through them, but the BBC script is quite faithful and quite good. The other is truly awful, as Asimov himself noted in a scrawl he sent along with it to Boston.)
It’s a mixed bag, however, and has holes. There are manuscripts for most of Asimov’s stories and books—but not all of them. There are galleys for most of Asimov’s books, but not all. There are so many items that are otherwise unavailable, however, that one hardly minds the holes.
The real value would be for the student of Asimov himself and not his writings. While the bulk of the material is directly related to his writing and is in the form of manuscripts, proofs, or tear sheets, a sizeable portion is correspondence, both written to Asimov and written by him, and as such provides useful raw material to be mined by Ph.D. candidates for decades to come.