But it wasn't until they hired a professional archivist that it became abundantly clear that these were not materials to be simply boxed and shelved.
The archivist, Dawn Schmitz, saw the trajectory of a modern-day hero in Rowland's private writings, research papers and public controversy. And she believed it was compelling enough that the public would want to see it, too.
The exhibit, "Discovery of a Lifetime: F. Sherwood Rowland and the Ozone Layer," came to life at the Langson Library at UCI last November and is open to the public until April.
Rowland, who founded the UCI Department of Chemistry, died Saturday in his Corona del Mar home. He was 84.
Rowland won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995, along with his postdoctoral colleague, Mario Molina, and Paul Crutzen. The award honored their cutting-edge research warning that chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, released into the atmosphere were depleting the ozone layer.
This groundbreaking research catalyzed the passage of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which eliminated CFCs from aerosol cans and brought international attention to the deleterious impact of greenhouse gases, caused by humans on the environment.
The donated materials are significant because they contain mostly unpublished correspondence, speeches and videotapes, some of which Rowland took himself, according to Mitchell Brown, the exhibit's curator and the research librarian for chemistry and earth system science.
They also contain notes Rowland wrote on drafts of his papers before they became the final, published versions; they provide insight into the evolution of his scientific process.
"You don't always get the chance to see how influences shaped his work," Brown said. "[These materials] look into the history of the scientist."
As the debate over man's impact on the environment intensified, Rowland and his research was often the target of vehement opposition. But he was always the gentleman, Brown said, exercising politeness, civility and humor.
As political cartoons at first spoofed, and then began working their way into the debate over global warming, Rowland started collecting them. The UCI exhibit features some of these cartoons.
Chemistry department Chairman Donald R. Blake said that before Rowland's death, Rowland was impressed with the exhibit.
'A huge, valuable mess'
When Rowland's archive was first donated, it filled 200 boxes, according to Michelle Light, head of special collections, archives and digital scholarship at UCI.
"It was a huge, valuable mess," Light said.
So Light's program received a grant for about $46,000 and hired Schmitz as a temporary archivist. Schmitz created a finding aid, which is available online, so scholars conducting research can see the content of the archived materials, box by box, by doing a Google search.
All of these boxes are housed in the libraries' special collections and archives department, but are not immediately accessible to the public. Scholars can look at the materials in a secure area. The collection as a whole presents a historical representation of the scientific issue of global warming, and how it's been framed since the 1970s, Light said.
No 'Eureka!' moment
Part of the exhibit is a card detailing a Rowland quotation that Schmitz kept running across.
The card explains that Rowland, while later recalling when he was asked how the work on the ozone layer was progressing, he said: "There was no moment when I yelled, 'Eureka!' I just came home one night and told my wife, 'The work is going very well, but it looks like the end of the world.'"
Another feature is a picture of Rowland receiving the Nobel Prize from King Carl XVI of Sweden. The medallion itself could not be exhibited because it is made of gold and is too valuable, according to Brown.
There's also a picture of Rowland at 10 years old with an intense look on his face, swinging a bat with some friends. He later played semi-pro baseball for a Canadian team during the summers while in grad school.
The scope of Rowland's research and its ramifications resonates closely with Brown. As he stood in the library contemplating a poster illustrating how CFCs attack the ozone layer, he commented on the state of the planet.
"The planet can manifest its own pollution, but it can also heal itself, but not always quickly, and not always by reversing itself," Brown said. "It can change, but it will be a new and different reality, which may not be friendly for humans and animals and culture."
But he added that he is heartened that scientists continue to work on the issue.
"It's not something we can close our eyes and wish away," Brown said.
If You Go
What: "Discovery of a Lifetime: F. Sherwood Rowland and the Ozone Layer"
When: Through April
Where: Langson Library Muriel Ansley Reynolds Gallery, UC Irvine