HOPE Center Explores Project to Document the History of the Econometric Society

When Olav Bjerkholt of the University of Oslo came up with the idea of creating a digital archive of materials related to the founding and subsequent history of the venerable Econometric Society, the first place he turned for help was the HOPE Center.

Bruce Caldwell, the director of the Center, responded by asking two graduate students in the economics department at Duke, Matt Panhans (standing in the photo on the left) and John Singleton (seated in the photo on the left), to comb the collections in the Economists’ Papers Project to identify and record any documents pertaining to the Econometric Society. Their mission was twofold: to determine if there were enough materials to justify pursuing Olav’s idea, and if so, to demonstrate what could be done with those documents.

The two young researchers discovered at Duke hundreds of pages of letters, memoranda, minutes of meetings, and the like.

“While we found lots of materials documenting the growth and struggles of the Society and more wait to be uncovered by other historians, my favorite was a ballot to elect new Fellows from 1947 in Paul Samuelson’s papers,” John says. “Samuelson’s handwritten check marks in pencil in the margins indicate his personal choices, which included Leonid Hurwicz, Lawrence Klein, and John von Neumann.”

For Matt, the project gave him a fascinating perspective on the Econometrics Society as a “community of real people.”

“In the 1930s they sought to build the Society and the reputation of their new journal, Econometrica,” Matt says. “Rather than academics in an ivory tower, the archives provide context to understanding the financial, political, and organizational struggles faced in promoting a new mathematical economics.”

Matt and John created a brief history of the Econometric Society from just some of materials they found. The history is in the form of a slideshow and can be downloaded from dropbox.

If the documents in the Economists’ Papers Project are any guide, there await scores of additional documents in other collections around the globe, documents that, once digitized and stored in a single place, can form the basis for a comprehensive history of the Econometric Society.