Monday, October 23, 2017

Archival questions, archival answers?

by Rachel Fellman

There’s no single educational path into archives, though most of us do go to library school. If there were an archives degree, though, you’d really only need two classes: Exquisite Office Supplies and Making Tricky Calls. Archives is not a career to go into if you like your decisions clear and your guidance universal. A collection with 25 folders is a collection with 25 problems. Are this woman’s records likely to be covered by HIPAA? Who is the man in this photo? Do we respect the office’s original file order if it doesn’t make sense? No, hear me out: what if it sort of makes sense?

1.5% of the collection. Photo by author. Also shown:
sunlight, the archivist's enemy.
All this is leading up to the reason you haven’t heard from us in a while: we’re (re)processing files from the office of Peter Kohler, who was president of OHSU from 1988 until 2006. Dr. Kohler was a central figure in OHSU’s history – during his tenure, the university doubled in size and employee numbers. And his collection is huge. How huge? Somewhere around 200 linear feet. Is that big by archival standards? Maybe not, but OHSU’s collections tend to be small. The Kohler records are our second-largest one. (The largest is 400 feet long, involves human remains and 98 boxes of plaster casts, and has its own room which may or may not be haunted.)

Perhaps half of the Kohler collection was already processed. Our goal now is to process the entire collection into one coherent arrangement scheme. One of the many tricky calls in archives is how much time to spend on a collection in the first place. There's a whole school of thought, called "minimal processing," that argues that we should spend very little -- no refoldering, no relabeling, no removal of paperclips or staples, just a collection hurtling as fast as possible into researchers' hands. Most archivists acknowledge the wisdom of that without taking it as gospel. We try to process quickly, but also go back and reexamine things when we can. (And usually we can't resist taking the paperclips out. They can rust!)

In this case, many of the files we've been working with had been refoldered and relabeled by previous archivists. So for this iteration of the project, the three of us (student workers and Archives Assistant) are going back through these records and doing some polishing, including bringing some of the titles in line with current practices. We're also deaccessioning some records. Plainly put, we had to remove some of the stuff to improve access to the rest.

Some of the choices were easy. There were things that were obviously too private to show researchers, or too banal to be any use to them. Want to see Dr. Kohler’s 2005 tax returns, complete with his Social Security number? Well, you can’t, because I’ve shredded them. Want to see the receipts for his car phones, back when that was a thing? A hint: you will learn more if you just type "car phone" into Google Images, and you'll also see some pictures of people who are really living.

But there were also more ambiguous calls. Most prominently, Dr. Kohler’s office saved many years of letters from patients. Some are positive, others are critical, but all of them reveal ordinary people's experiences and feelings about the hospital. Per OHSU’s records retention policy, we should be throwing them all away, and for most of the length of this project, we have. But the questions creep up. How much does an institution’s records retention policy apply to its archives? How much do we owe to the patients – to make sure their stories are told – and how much do we owe to the institution – to tell its story in full? But also: don't we owe these patients their privacy? They never gave permission for their letters to be kept forever; permission is a privilege not everyone gets. So what's more important, what's the more vital right? Being remembered, or being forgotten?

I can’t provide an upside-down answer key at the end of this post, like on a magazine quiz. Archival questions are all unanswerable; that’s why they’re so tricky. But essentially, we've come down on the side of throwing them away. The record suffers from the absence of these stories, but people suffer when institutions do things without consent, and it's part of our professional ethics to value people over paper. We value the paper because we value the people. Still, there are always ambiguities when you try to be fair to everybody, and we need to keep these things in mind when we look at records that past archivists have processed. They may look neutral, but there are always decisions behind them.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Rosenbaum History of Neurology Lecture: Dr. Jock Murray on November 7th

Please join us for our first history of medicine lecture of the 2017-2018 season:

Tuesday, November 7th, 2017, 5:00pm
Doernbecher Children's Hospital -- Miller Auditorium (11th floor)


In every decade before and after MS was named and framed in 1868, there was always an array of therapies applied to patients. Dr. Murray will explain the theoretical basis behind the numerous treatments up to the present day.

Dr. Jock Murray is a neurologist, and founder and former director of the Dalhousie MS Research Unit.  He was Dean of Medicine, and Professor of Medical Humanities. He had leadership roles as Chairman of the American College of Physicians, VP of the American Academy of Neurology, President of the American Olser Society, and President of the Canadian Neurological Society.  He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, Order of Nova Scotia and a laureate of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

2017-2018 OHSU History of Medicine Society lectures

A new season of History of Medicine Society lecture season is upon us! Please see below for a preview of our 2017-2018 schedule.  We will be posting more event details and reminders as the lecture dates approach.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017, 5:00pm
Doernbecher Miller Auditorium
Herbert Rosenbaum History of Neurology Lecture
Dr. T. John “Jock” Murray, MD
Dalhousie University
Sponsored by the Department of Neurology

Tuesday, December 5, 2017, 10:00am
BICC 429 (OHSU Main Library)
Bill Graves
Author of Transformed: How Oregon's Public Health University Won Independence and Healed Itself

Friday, April 20, 2018, 12:00pm
OHSU Old Library Auditorium
Dr. Dan Albert, MD, MS
Casey Eye Institute

Spring 2018
History of Surgery lecture
Dr. Albert Starr
Sponsored by the Department of Surgery
Date TBD

Thursday, August 17, 2017

"The Marquam Hill Billy"

by Rachel Fellman

scan by the author
No plan survives the enemy, and no departmental in-joke survives eighty years in a file folder. I drew that second conclusion while reading through the three surviving issues of The Marquam Hill Billy, a University of Oregon Medical School employee newsletter from (most likely) 1937. (Volume and issue numbers are listed with almost sarcastic precision, but there are no dates on the issues).

The newsletter takes a mocking tone, and two of its opening editorials take the time to chide annoyed readers: "No fair getting your feelings hurt"; "our policy is not to hurt any feelings, so it's  'no fair gettin' mad.'" It's hard to imagine any of the readership actually gettin' mad, though. The jokes at staff expense are very mild, and composed mainly of self-deprecating anecdotes and things that friends might tell their friends. (One staffer mistakes shaving cream for toothpaste; another is briefly caught up in a riptide; a third is in love.) There are marriage and baby announcements, and a certain amount of medical wordplay ("the weather was a little diluted," and the Hill Billy itself is "issued P.R.N.").

It's in the patient anecdotes that the Hill Billy takes the gloves off. A young patient's mother pronounces "pneumonia" as "peanut ammonia"; another child gets a bee sting on his tongue while running down the hill to tell his mother their house was on fire. In general, the portrayal of patients is very negative: they're portrayed as ill-informed and uneducated, and generally don't know what's what. Some of them are black, which is held to be inherently funny, and racist remarks abound.

Most of the time, I find that old publications read a lot like new ones. The Crohn's newsletters are recognizable precursors of the modern Internet, with a mixture of information and friendly chatter. And an alumni magazine is an alumni magazine whether you meet it in 1957 or 2017. Gallows humor is universal to caring professions, as is private frustration with patients and co-workers. But it's hard to imagine anything like The Marquam Hill Billy existing today. The idea of how a professional speaks and acts has just changed too much, and there's a much stronger boundary between our personal and working lives. Archivists may be annoyed by HIPAA more or less all the time, but at least it stops medical discourse from devolving into "poor people say the darnedest things." (I'll own, though, that "don't get mad at the nasty remark I'm about to make" remains a universal constant.)

The Marquam Hill Billy can be found in the University News and Publications Print Collection, 2004-003.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Beyond the Pickering Debacle

by Rachel Fellman

Dr. Donald Pickering's lab notebooks are easy to date for two reasons. First, he served at the University of Oregon Medical School for only five years -- as a professor of pediatrics, and then as the first director of the Oregon Regional (now National) Primate Research Center. His speedy departure from the latter post was still referred to decades later as "the Pickering Debacle."

Photo by author
The second reason, though, is that he was a tidy man who obviously treasured his office supplies. The first page of each hardcover notebook is neatly labeled with the subject and year, with a first-day-of-school enthusiasm that's been preserved intact through the early years of the doctor's professional life. Their internal organization is similarly scholarly. Photographs are pasted in and neatly labeled, and introductory matter is written in full sentences without corrections. I like to think that Dr. Pickering, who died in 2006, would have appreciated knowing that we've removed the rusted paperclips from his work and fitted it precisely into a 2.5-inch acid-free box.

His tenure here was unhappy, as the word "debacle" tends to suggest. The reason why is less obvious. The relevant oral histories are a Rashomon-like collection of stories, often marked by anxiety about how much detail to discuss, even thirty years later. To Dr. Robert Campbell, the issue was a personality conflict -- a question of money and control -- between Dr. Pickering and the Dean of the medical school, Dr. David W. E. Baird. This blossomed into an open argument in the local press, with the Dean's allies attacking Pickering's personality and mental health. Joseph A. Adams, former head of public relations, remembers Pickering as the aggressor in the matter, a man who got into legal trouble that the dean had to answer for, and whose resignation was a bluff which the Dean cannily called. Dr. Peter Bentley simply says that Pickering was an abrasive manager who was quickly fired. Dr. Richard Jones recalls that the conflict played out over a computer -- a significant purchase in 1963 -- which Dr. Pickering bought without authorization using NIH funds. He speaks warmly of Dr. Pickering's intellectual curiosity, ambition, and creativity, and also of his unapologetic ego. Of all of these accounts, Dr, Jones's appears to be the most objective, although that doesn't mean it's the most correct.

It's always an interesting challenge to delve into institutional history without simply digging up old dirt. I was tempted to stop with the irresistible phrase "the Pickering Debacle," but of course a little research revealed a much more complicated and suggestive story about a rapidly growing institution whose ambitious staff tended to burn hot. It all has very little to do with the fetal development of rhesus macaques, but somehow, in between all the drama, Dr. Pickering found the time to conduct and collect his research into his two elegant notebooks.