November 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 8

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ICPSR Celebrates its Upcoming
50th Anniversary

Dan Meisler, ICPSR Editor

This piece is based on a personal history of ICPSR written by Erik Austin, former ICPSR Assistant Director who retired in 2006 after 41 years at the Consortium; interviews with Austin, former Director Myron Gutmann, former Summer Program Director Hank Heitowit, current Summer Program Director William Jacoby, and longtime ICPSR staffers Peter Granda and Mary Vardigan; and various historical documents. All of this material and more can be viewed at www.icpsr.umich.edu/fifty.

The Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, but its origins go back even further than its founding in 1962. The idea for what is now the largest social science data archive in the world dates to the mid-1950s, when researchers at the University of Michigan held a series of seminars at which they provided access to data from the American National Election Study (ANES).

Warren Miller, ICPSR’s founder and one of the authors of the landmark book The American Voter based on ANES data, understood that the demand for the data was not likely to be temporary. He embarked on an effort that he likened to that of a traveling salesman—Miller traveled the country seeking members for a new consortium that would collect, store, and distribute survey data in political science.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that the sharing of research data was the logical next step in the progress of the social sciences, but at the time the idea was so counterintuitive that it bordered on revolutionary. To ask researchers to voluntarily hand over their data, and to seek money from other institutions to access that data were new propositions at the time.

But by 1962, Miller had 21 universities ready to buy $2,500 annual memberships to the new Inter-university Consortium for Political Research (the name was changed in 1975 to add the word "Social").

The powerful idea led to the quick growth of the Consortium. By 1968, there were 127 members, and in the following 15 years that number more than doubled. Currently, ICPSR boasts 700 members from around the world. The founders of the Consortium—including Miller’s American Voter co-authors Philip Converse, Angus Campbell, and Donald Stokes—also recognized that a training component was needed. It did no good, after all, to provide complex survey data to researchers if they didn’t know how to use it. So the Summer Program in Quantitative Methods of Social Research was created simultaneously with ICPSR, with the first session held in 1963.

That year, 21 faculty members and 41 graduate students took part in the program’s nine courses. While the founders had hoped that the Summer Program would only be temporary, as those trained in survey methods would in turn teach others at their own institutions, that turned out not to be the case. The Summer Program has expanded hand-in-hand with the Consortium as a whole. In 2011, there were nearly 900 participants enrolled in 67 courses offered in Ann Arbor, and separate workshops held in Amherst, MA; Bloomington, IN; Berkeley, CA; and Chapel Hill, NC.

ICPSR’s earliest data holdings focused on historical data on politics and demography such as county-level election returns dating back to 1824; census data from 1790 to 1970; and congressional roll call votes going back to 1789.

The Consortium started significantly diversifying its holdings in the 1970s. This was reflected not only in the name change but in the establishment of two of ICPSR’s longest lasting special topic archives: the National Archive of Computerized Data on Aging (NACDA) and the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data (NACJD). Both were funded by grants from federal agencies, which would prove to be an important factor in the future development of ICPSR.

At the same time, different types of institutions were finding membership in ICPSR an attractive option, namely smaller, teaching-oriented colleges and universities. The Consortium began offering memberships to "federations," in which one institution acts as a hub assisting affiliated schools to access ICPSR’s data.

Of course, the technology of archiving and distributing data has changed dramatically since the 1960s. Beginning with "punchcards," the preferred media for data migrated to magnetic tape, then to compact disks, then to FTP and direct download from the Web. ICPSR adopted new dissemination strategy as our member institutions developed the capacity to use each new technology.

ICPSR’s first website went up in 1994, but it wasn’t until the development of "ICPSR Direct" in 2001 that the current model of downloading data on demand was instituted. Before ICPSR Direct, data requests had to go through each institution’s Official Representative to ICPSR. Direct download of our data has proved extremely popular, as users routinely download more than half a million files each year from the ICPSR archive.

We have continued to diversify our holdings in recent years with the creation of topic-specific archives dedicated to data on minority populations, early childhood development, NCAA student-athletes, addiction, HIV, and demography. Our archiving capabilities are constantly expanding. For example, ICPSR is leading a group of three University of Michigan units in a project with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to archive, preserve, and disseminate video from the Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching program.

As research designs have become increasingly complex, ICPSR has focused on providing secure access to potentially sensitive information about survey participants.  We are in the process of developing a Virtual Data Enclave that will allow researchers to analyze restricted-use data from their own computers, while the data and analytical output stays on ICPSR’s secure servers until disclosure analysis is completed. ICPSR also provides guidance on satisfying federal funders’ new data management plan requirements with a webpage and blog devoted to guidelines, examples, and answers to users’ questions.

As data curation, archiving, and preservation get more attention from researchers in a wide range of disciplines, ICPSR is uniquely positioned to build on 50 years of leadership to help the scientific community navigate this fast-moving field. 

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