Skip to main content

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth Library of Management Research and Professional papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MSP 8

Scope and Contents

The Gilbreth Library of Management documents the pioneering research of Frank Gilbreth and Lillian Gilbreth in the fields of time and motion study. Commonly referred to as the N-file, the collection covers the Gilbreths quest to find The One Best Way in job performance, worker satisfaction, efficient office management, and home economics.

Types of material in the N-file include photographs, manuscripts, correspondence, notes, blueprints, newspaper clippings, reports, and research materials collected by the Gilbreths. Subjects include time study, motion study, fatigue in the workplace, psychology, photography, ergonomics, management, construction, and creating work environments geared toward the handicapped. Company files in the collection include: New England Butt Company, Regal Shoe Company, Remington Typewriter Company, Sears and Roebuck, National Cash Register, Pierce Arrow, Eastman Kodak, Lever Brothers, Macy's, Johnson and Johnson, Brooklyn Borough Gas Company, and Cluett Peabody and Company. A small portion of the collection covers the Gilbreths family life and Frank's army career during World War I.


  • 1845 - 1959
  • Majority of material found within 1906 - 1924
  • Other: Date acquired: 11/30/1938


Access Information

Collection is open for research.

Copyright and Use Information

Copyright and literary rights are held by the Gilbreth family. Please consult an archivist for further information.

Biographical Information

Frank Bunker Gilbreth was born July 7, 1868 to John and Martha (Bunker) Gilbreth of Fairfield, Maine. The youngest of three children, Frank enjoyed a quiet childhood until his father’s sudden death from pneumonia in 1871. For financial reasons, his mother was forced to move Frank and his sisters, Anne and Mary, to Boston where Martha opened a boardinghouse. Martha successfully managed the boarding house and along with a small income from her sister Caroline’s artwork, was able to support the family and put her two daughters through college. After passing the MIT entrance exams in the summer of 1885, Frank decided to forgo higher education and entered the construction trade as a bricklayer’s assistant. Frank noted that the bricklayers with whom he trained all had different approaches to bricklaying and he soon devised a method which eliminated unnecessary motions and greatly increased productivity. Frank quickly worked his way up within the company and was soon able to support his mother and aunt. In 1895, he started his own contracting firm, Frank Gilbreth and Company. The company became famous for finishing projects early and under budget. In 1902, Frank’s firm finished building a laboratory for MIT in eleven weeks, a feat which so impressed a young engineering student that he begged the president of the university to arrange a meeting. The student was Andrey Potter (who later became the dean of engineering at Purdue University) and he and Frank Gilbreth became lifelong friends.

Lillian Evelyn Moller was born May 24, 1878 in Oakland, California to William Moller, a successful plumbing business owner, and Annie Delger Moller. The oldest surviving daughter of nine children, Lillian became adept at aiding her often ailing mother in the management of a large well-to-do household. A shy child, Lillian was home-schooled by her mother until she was nine. Once in school, Lillian excelled at her studies and ended up graduating high school with straight As. In 1896, she entered the University of California and became the first woman in the university’s history to deliver a commencement address when she graduated in 1900. The following fall, Lillian moved to New York to start her graduate work at Columbia University. An illness forced her to return to California but in 1901 she returned to the University of California and earned a master’s degree in literature. In the spring of 1903, Lillian, along with a group of friends, set out for the East Coast to begin a six month tour of Europe. They arrived in Boston and had a few days to sightsee before boarding their ship. One of her friends, Minnie Bunker, introduced Lillian to her cousin, Frank Bunker Gilbreth. Frank, a confirmed bachelor, became infatuated with Lillian and was waiting at the dock when her ship returned. Six months after their first meeting he proposed and on October 19, 1904 Frank and Lillian were married in the living room of her parents’ home in Oakland, California.

The marriage of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth began one of the most famous partnerships in engineering history. Lillian immediately became a full partner in Frank’s business, working with him first from home but soon joining him on job sites, at business meetings, and participating in industrial conferences. Frank relied on Lillian tremendously and affectionately referred to her as “Boss.” They collaborated on papers, 9 speeches, lectures, and co-authored four books. In 1907, Frank met Frederick Winslow Taylor, the developer of time study, and became a disciple of the Taylor System. The Gilbreths became deeply involved in scientific management research and Frank was instrumental in the creation of the Taylor Society. In 1912, the Gilbreths left construction and focused their attention on scientific management consulting. They broke with Taylor in 1914 and formed their own form of scientific management which focused on the human element as well as the technical. In 1915, Lillian received her doctorate in psychology and incorporated her training into the family business. She saw the need to improve worker satisfaction which would in turn improve overall job performance and worker efficiency. Frank designed his systems to ease worker fatigue and increase productivity by studying each movement a worker made in a process he called micromotion study. The Gilbreths used still photographs and film strips to study worker movement in order to devise the “One Best Way” to perform a task. The Gilbreths also saw the need to improve the physical comfort of the worker and their innovations in office furniture design were ahead of their time and led the way to the study of ergonomics.

The Gilbreths’ work in time management and efficiency carried over into their personal lives. Early on, Frank and Lillian agreed to have twelve children, six boys and six girls, a feat which they accomplished in seventeen years. The children Anne, Mary (died at the age of six from diphtheria), Ernestine, Martha, Frank Jr., Bill, Lillian, Fred, Dan, John, Bob, and Jane soon became willing participants in their parents’ studies. The older children were assigned younger siblings to care for and all had daily housekeeping tasks, including the toddlers, who were given table legs to dust. Often Frank would recruit the children for help with his research including his motion studies on typing and surgery. The Gilbreths’ success raising a large family in which both parents worked full time was a testimony to their achievements in management and efficiency and their love for one another. After Frank’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1924, Lillian not only carried on with their work but also managed to put every child through college. Lillian retired in 1968 and died January 2, 1972


100.00 Cubic Feet (193 boxes)

Language of Materials


Arrangement Note

The N-file is arranged in a mnemonic filing system devised by Frank Gilbreth using letters to file by subject without the need for an index. The original letter system is located on each file. The file numbers were added later to avoid confusion with similar lettered files. A control index regarding the mnemonic filing system is located in the addendum.

The collection is organized into four series:
  1. N-file, ca. 1845-1941 (71.5 cubic feet)
  2. N-file Oversized, ca. 1914-1919 (1 cubic foot)
  3. N-file Photographs, ca. 1908-1941 (11.5 cubic feet)
  4. N-file Blueprints, ca. 1906-1937 (8 cubic feet)

Physical Access Information

Some materials are extremely fragile and must be handled with additional care.

Custodial History

Dr. Lillian Gilbreth donated the collection to Purdue University in 1939. The collection was shipped to the university in 1940 and was sorted and processed on site by Dr. Gilbreth. A small portion of the collection including the personal books of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth is housed at Purdue’s Industrial Engineering Department located in Grissom Hall. Addendum materials were added to the collection over time by Dr. Lillian Gilbreth and the Purdue Libraries. The majority of the materials cover the N-file and the mnemonic filing system.

Acquisition Information

Donated by Dr. Lillian M. Gilbreth, 1939.

Processing Information

The original order of the materials as established by the Gilbreths has been retained. All materials have been housed in acid-free, lignin-free folders and boxes. All newsprint has been photocopied. Oversized printed materials, blueprints, and photographs have been grouped into individual series for preservation purposes. Additions to the collection have been separated into the N-file Addendum file.
Frank and Lillian Gilbreth Library of Management Research and Professional papers
Joanne Mendes, Archives Assistant; Mary Sego; Katey Watson.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Edition statement
Fourth edition. Collection description was first completed on March 7, 2008.

Revision Statements

  • 2020-10-28: Corrected typo in file title; Branders to Brandeis. KW
  • 2021-03-22: Corrected typo in file title; Katherine Gibbs School to Katharine Gibbs School. KW
  • 2021-04-09: Added biographical note and other information from pdf finding aid. KW
  • 2022-07-18: Edited files listed in boxes 117 and 118 in finding aid to align with placement in boxes. Files 0830-136 to 0835 were listed in box 118, whereas they were located in box 117. Added file 0832-3 in box 117 to finding aid as it previously was not listed.

Repository Details

Part of the Purdue University Archives and Special Collections Repository

504 Mitch Daniels Boulevard
West Lafayette Indiana 47907 United States