Scripps Institution of Oceanography Archives


A review of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Archives (San Diego, United States).

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography (Scripps), which includes the in-house archive reviewed here, is located on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. When you arrive on campus, located in the community of La Jolla within the city of San Diego, the moist breeze will catch you. It will ruffle your loose t-shirt as you bend down to shake the sand off of your flip-flops before going inside what was once the library building. Your hair might even still be wet and salty from an early morning surf session on the waves breaking just steps from the Scripps campus.

La Jolla means “jewel” in Spanish. The community is marketed to tourists as “the jewel of San Diego,” and the archive fits nicely within that description. The collections thoroughly cover Scripps’ history and in doing so, they contain links to activities well outside of ocean science. There are many examples, but to name a handful: National Science Advisory Committee, climate change, US Navy, atomic bomb, transnational exchanges within and beyond science, the Rockefeller Foundation, International Geophysical Year, The Cold War loyalty oath, music & science, women in science, and indigenous encounters across the Pacific. There is also a huge amount of information across collections documenting the activities of the wives of Scripps scientists – a history that I think someone should write. And those are just some that I see.

General Information

About five years ago I visited the Scripps archive as a masters student and again in summer 2012 as a doctoral candidate. My dissertation is largely structured around one of the many expeditions undertaken by Scripps. Through my work, I realized that the archive is extensive including a large set of personal papers, ships logs, institution subject files, photographs, audio files, videos, oral histories, institution publications, ocean charts, and histories written by either the scientists themselves or other Scripps staff members. In the five years that I have been using this archive the website has undergone a major transformation. A large amount of material is now searchable and in some cases available on the archive website.  My understanding is that this front-end overhaul also involved some rearranging and further cataloging of materials in the belly of the archive to aid researchers in their searches for materials.

Several other changes occurred over the last few years. Two multi-decade senior staff members have retired and, to my knowledge, they have not been replaced. This matters to the researcher because having the opportunity to talk about what I am looking for with the archive staff has brought about several breakthroughs in my work. While I appreciate to no end the detail of the online resources, they cannot replace one on one time with an archivist who personally knows the holdings and is eager to share that knowledge. The website is the best place to look for the most up to date staff contact information considering recent changes.

Also interesting is the fact that the library that houses the archive has been transferred to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Thus, the Scripps Institution no longer has its own library on its campus. All of the titles are still available at UCSD, just a short and free shuttle ride away. There is also a university archive there. The shuttle stops right in front of the library at Scripps and took me to the center of the UCSD campus.

As I write this, the Scripps Archive is still housed in the old library building. It’s just that the rest of the building is empty. Obviously they are in the midst of transition, and the end result is something I am not qualified to forecast. When I visited in 2012, I accessed the archive building by calling the front desk of the archive from my cell phone, and someone came down to let me in the building.

Scripps Archive Website

The web-based changes have been invaluable to my research. I spent extensive time doing a kind of pre-research online at home into the activities of the institution and personnel. That allowed me to limit the time actually spent in La Jolla, a major benefit considering the cost of food, lodging, and airfare. And those two things enabled a third, which is that I could really sit down with the sources and engage with them while I was in the archive.

The website is in fact so extensive that it is now possible to get lost in it until its structure becomes familiar. The main archive page breaks down a lot of the information usually included in the posts here on Dissertation Reviews: archive access, staff contact information, archive location, list of collections, guide to selected collections, images & photographs, media, histories, oral histories, biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, annual reports, personnel directories, bibliographies, Scripps publications, histories of oceanography and earth sciences, and ocean charts. There is a ton of information, and a lot of documents can be found online without even visiting the archive.

Key to note are the links to the archive searches that use Google Advanced Search. There are three such searches on the main archive page:

  1. Under “Manuscript & Archival Collections” there is a link titled “Search folder heading words or phrases across these selected collections.”
  2. Under “Images/Photographs” there is “Search Our Digitized Photos”
  3. And at the very bottom of the page, the last bullet point is “SCRIPPS ARCHIVES SITE SEARCH” under which is the link for “Search words or phrases across text content on Scripps Archives website.”

And where there isn’t a search for content, there is a collections list and guide.

Navigating La Jolla

The Scripps Institution is located at 8622 Kennel Way in La Jolla. The first time I visited I stayed at a hotel on Gilman Drive, just outside of the UCSD campus. I then walked to the center of campus and boarded a shuttle that has several stops on the Scripps campus, including one in front of the library building. The two campuses are not that far away from one another, but walking from UCSD to Scripps is a long haul. Current information on this shuttle is best obtained from a Google search on “Scripps shuttle.” For my second visit, I stayed in Old Town La Jolla, which is further away, but actually a quicker commute each morning because the bus delivered me almost door to door. It takes about 20 minutes. To board the bus, I walked from my hotel to the corner of Silverado St & Herschel Ave where I caught the #30 bus. The bus stops on La Jolla Shores Drive directly across from Scripps. The buses are old, do not have a visual display of the stop name, and the audio is typically garbled. Just ask the bus driver if you are nervous about missing the stop. One-way fare is $2.25. If you are using a car, the Archive can arrange parking on campus.

I enjoyed staying in Old Town La Jolla much better than on Gilman Drive. There is some confusion about the name of this neighborhood – I am referring to the Village of La Jolla (the heart of La Jolla on the water; someone told me it is referred to as Old Town), not La Jolla Village (which is south of UCSD). In Old Town you’ll find plenty of restaurants and shops just outside the hotels. I stopped at a bakery each morning on my way to the bus. The beach is a stone’s throw away, and periodically I eavesdropped on people speaking Spanish. La Jolla Cove is a popular and historical swim spot where you will also find a few outcroppings where seals and sea birds bask in the sun.

Inside the Archive 

Once inside the old library building, I was taken upstairs to the main viewing room where there are a series of large tables. Some of the materials are not housed on site so in preparation for my visit, I used the online lists and searches to generate my requests of boxes to view. I found continual contact with the archivists valuable to ensure that the materials I wanted to see were located, transferred to the Scripps campus, and ready for my viewing. There is no hard rule as to how early to initiate contact, but I suggest at least a month. In a pinch with a small request for materials a week would probably be enough. When I arrived last year, all 100 or so boxes that I requested were there waiting for me; the few that were not showed up in the next day or two.

Scripps allowed me to photograph all of the materials I requested save one collection. The Charles Keeling Papers require approval from the Keeling Family in order to view. Before my visit I contacted the appropriate people, but was not granted permission to view the materials. It is unclear to me if this choice was personal to me and my research or if the family simply does not consider the materials to be in a viewable state. The archive staff were very helpful in this process, but the final decision from the family was to deny my access at the time.

Because the library which houses the archive has been shut down, I was not allowed outside of the archive room except to use the washroom. If I needed to go outside the building, I had to call again to be escorted inside the building and up to the archive room. I found these to be minor formalities. Access is by appointment and requires staff presence during the entirety of your visit. The Archive was able to accommodate my need to be in the archive from opening until closing without a lunch break. As I recall, this was 8am to 5pm. I simply moved to a table distant from the materials I was working with any time I needed to eat or drink. The building is air-conditioned so I found a sweater useful. There is a coffee shop and Caroline’s Seaside Café if you wish to get out for a bite and a little sunshine.

The viewing room is so quiet you can hear rogue pebbles of sand drop off your flip-flops onto the carpet. I don’t like to work with music, but I imagine some people would find the silence maddening and headphones a life-saver. The Archive provides pencils (pens not allowed), scrap paper, bean-bag paper weights, electrical outlets on every table, and free Wi-Fi. My computer does not have a CD player so the archivist brought out a PC for me access materials in that format. Anytime this sort of technological issue came up, the archivist went out of his/her way to help me view the materials as thoroughly as possible. During my first visit I ran out of batteries for my camera. The archivist dug around and found an old baggie full of them and just gave them to me. Photocopies are available if needed. Contact Archive staff for up to date pricing. There was one piece of media that required a projector, which the archive did not have. But I did not feel that viewing it was vital so I did not push the issue. My gut tells me that if I really really would have wanted to see it, they would have somehow come up with a projector even if they had to borrow it from somewhere.


Seek details on the San Diego or airport Super Shuttle to save money on transportation to and from the airport. Cabs to Old Town La Jolla, for example, are over $60 one way. Lodging and food are expensive so consider Couchsurfing, but be aware of public transportation in the area where you stay if you aren’t renting a car. Going in the winter might help save airfare. Eat some Mexican food. Walk out onto the beach just off of the Scripps campus. And as I have hinted already, don’t forget your flip-flops.

Denzil Ford
Department of History
University of British Columbia

Image: Photograph by Denzil Ford

Important Note: Dissertation Reviews, its members, and affiliates assume no responsibility for the accuracy of this material. Access, location, times, and other data are subject to change, and readers assume all responsibility for making direct contact with the institutions in question and double-checking all information before any visit. If you discover errors in this description, or changes to the policies or relevant information in one of the sites featured on “Fresh from the Archives,” please contact us at


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like