Herring Brain Box

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics, Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305

The Herring Reference Archive is a digitized version of the Herring Brain Box, a collection of scientific references identified and cataloged by Dr. W. Conyers Herring, head of the Theory Group at Bell Labs during the Laboratory's golden years - 1945 to 1985. It differs from a conventional catalog in being tastefully selective. Dr. Herring, an excellent theoretical physicist, personally examined each reference and made an entry only if he judged it to be important. His standards were high. Nothing made it into the archive unless it was very fine physics or very fine engineering - and preferably both. The Herring archive eventually became incorporated into Bell's corporate personality and influenced many of its research decisions. The archive is thus a fascinating historical record of the birth of the electronic age.

Herring's references were not, unfortunately, recorded digitally but instead written by hand as scribbles on 3x5 cards - mostly in English but occasionally in Russian, German or French. This immensely complicates their digitization. The transcription cannot be done by computer, but instead must be done manually by people who know enough physics to decipher Herring's writing and find mistakes. This excludes graduate students, unfortunately, because they lack the seasoning required to make good judgments. Hand transcription, in turn, requires the entries to be checked individually for errors by actually tracking down the reference.

For these reasons and others, the digitization is an ongoing project, not a completed one. The archive's content will slowly change for the next several years, and will not be reorganized and outfitted with a proper search engine until the transcription and checking is completed. The objective at present is to preserve the massive catalog just as Herring wrote it - including his arcane organization scheme.

Notwithstanding the primitiveness of the methods, Herring eventually accumulated thousands of references. The cards on which they were written became so numerous that he was forced to carry them in a large black suitcase. This "brain box" became increasingly notorious at Bell Labs, both because carrying a suitcase to the library was absurd and because Herring gradually developed an uncanny ability, through the agency of this very box, to direct you to just the right place when you sought his advice. The box eventually filled to capacity and then overflowed into filing cabinets. The above photograph, taken in 2007, long after Herring had stopped adding to the archive, is full for this reason. The total number of cards is about twice the number visible in the photograph.

The present archive records both the overflow cards and the ones in the box at the time Herring ended his work.