Friday, October 13, 2006

Promoting cultural collections

Yet another workshop today, this one an all-day affair in downtown Portland. I'm attending a seminar called "Telling the Story: Promoting Cultural Collections," presented by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA).

do we do currently to promote the collections here at HC&A? How do we get out of the History of Medicine Room and into the places where researchers are? About a year and a half ago, we did the obvious: created a glossy brochure highlighting our collections and services. We've handed out about a thousand of them now, by my reckoning, and most have probably made their way into the hands of people who would never have discovered us otherwise.

The brochure is limited by its very nature as a physical object (we know all about the limitations of physicality here in HC&A)--someone has to pick up the brochure, or we have to mail it out. In contrast, our website is able to touch people who cannot come here to touch our brochure: they stumble across it in a Google search, they are directed to it by citations of other researchers, they are linked to it from records in OCLC's WorldCat, they see it listed in online directories of historical collections.

On the website, researchers with a specific question or agenda can find a good deal of information about our holdings. For the casual browser who has no predefined information need, we provide some entertainment on our exhibits page. This web presentation is a complement to the physical exhibit that is installed in the OHSU Main Library. The quarterly displays represent another extremely powerful method of promoting the collections. In the exhibition of selected materials from one or more collections, we provide footprints back to the full collections, leading researchers Hansel-and-Gretel-like into the forest of available information. Attractive exhibits can make history come alive for those not normally interested in past events.

We have also partnered with other institutions and programs in the past to reach an even wider audience. In Fall 2004, we worked with the Multnomah County Library to mount an exhibit of local materials complementing the National Library of Medicine's traveling exhibit "Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature" (some photos from that exhibit can be found in the Digital Resources Library by doing a search on "frankenstein"). An especially productive ongoing collaboration has been formed with the producers of a documentary program on the history of medicine in Oregon. Together, OHSU and the OMA-OMEF sponsored project have conducted several oral history interviews of local physicians and health care workers. We have included these in our Oral History Project, while the documentarians have begun compiling all the interviews into a single program. You can view a short demo of that film in the DRL.

And, if you're reading this, you know that our blog is now helping promote the collections here. You may have already noticed that there are more research projects awaiting investigators than there are projects underway. So, if you see reference to something you'd like to know more about or something you think would be perfect for that paper or article you need to write, give us a call! If you know of anyone--student, historian, amateur sleuth--who might be interested in some of the materials we have, by all means let them know about us! Help us spread the word--there's room for a little history in everyone's future!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Digital curtain

I spent more than half the day this morning at what seemed like a rather long workshop on the advanced features of the software we here at OHSU use to display digital items in the Digital Resources Library, a software called ContentDM.

The software is great; the Digital Resources Library (or DRL as we call it) is great. We've been able to put quite a few things "out there" for patrons who cannot make it up onto the Hill to see the materials in person. In the subcollection for items from Historical Collections & Archives alone, there are over 1100 images and files to browse.

Recently, I heard a colleague refer to this sort of online presentation of scanned objects and digital pictures as "the digital curtain"--a curtain drawn over the complete range of physical collections, obscuring the true richness of the holdings, preventing researchers and other users from seeing the full panoply of materials.

For example, there are 192 digital images from the Historical Image Collection in the DRL at present, but there are approximately 9,000 images contained in the physical collection. There are 39 digital pictures of books or scanned illustrations from the History of Medicine and History of Dentistry Collections in the DRL, but there are about 3,000 books in the collections.

What does this mean? That we need to scan more? Almost certainly. But most importantly, it means that researchers need to talk to us about what we have before assuming that what they see online is the extent of our information on the subject. As more and more content is digitized, our role as guides to (the rest of) the physical collections becomes ever more critical.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Nurse and Spy

Today's task (and yesterday's and tomorrow's, perhaps) is shifting pretty much every book in the History of Medicine Collection to make space for the new acquisitions which were the subject of yesterday's post. (We're a little cramped for space here in the History of Medicine Room.)

There are about 3500 books in the collections here in Historical Collections & Archives, and I certainly am not familiar with all of them. So, as I move, I browse. Several things caught my eye; among them: Nurse and Spy in the Union Army: comprising the adventures and experiences of a woman in hospitals, camps, and battle-fields, with illustrations, published in 1865 by Sarah Emma Edmonds.

Edmonds, a New Brunswick native, had been in the United States for five years before the outbreak of hostilities between North and South. In response to a call for soldiers, she signed up with the Army and was assigned to duty as a Field Nurse. In this role, according to the publisher's notice, she joined the "Secret Service" as a spy and "penetrated the enemy's lines, in various disguises, no less than eleven times; always with complete success and without detection." Wow! Apparently, one of these disguises was an African-American appearance; the plate illustrating that particular episode is labeled "Disguised as Contraband."

But did she actually nurse wounded soldiers? She gives no account of her early experiences, saying only that she was drawn to America by "an insatiable thirst for education" and a desire to become a "Foreign Missionary." Her role (from the small amount I read) seems to have been one of supporter, comforter, and confidante to the wounded men. Small wonder she turned to espionage where, she may have felt, her strengths could be used to greater advantage.

A great read, no doubt. While my own personal knowledge of the history of military nursing was not much expanded by my brief dip into the book, I was able to contribute materially to the volume's preservation: I removed a small leaf pressed between inner pages.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Of quinsy: new acquisitions in History of Medicine Collection

What is quinsy, you might ask? Interestingly, the Medical Subject Headings from the National Library of Medicine can't tell you. But here in the History of Medicine Room, where we deal in obscure usages and antiquated words, we have our ways of finding these things out. OK, I used Merriam-Webster. Quinsy is "an abscess in the tissue around a tonsil usually resulting from bacterial infection and often accompanied by pain and fever."

Before today, a keyword search on "quinsy" in the OHSU library catalog wouldn't have gotten you anywhere; now, you'll find Gerard van Swieten's commentaries on the aphorisms of Boerhaave. This morning we received back from cataloging several new additions to the History of Medicine Collection, including two more volumes in the Swieten set.

Filling in the gaps in a broken set of a given work is the labor of acquisitions; the love is represented by the rest of the titles we got in today, including:

Thomas Willis's De anima brutorum, 1672
John Hunter's Traité des maladies vénériennes, 1787
Rene Descartes Tractatus de homine, 1677
Francis Glisson's Tractatus de ventriculo, 1677
Paul Bert's Pression barometrique, 1878

Landmark titles. Beautiful illustrations. The type of paper that just feels good to the fingers. And great words like quinsy. What's not to love?

Monday, October 09, 2006


This year, as last, I made time this past weekend to attend the Friends of Multnomah County Library fall book sale, held as before in a soulless building on NE Sandy and Burnside here in Portland. As last year, I waited until Sunday, hoping that all the books would be gone by then and I and my pocketbook would have nothing to fear from a little browsing.

Well, I wound up seeing a little gem there, and its title could be a subheading for this post: How It Happened, by our own former faculty member Dr. A.G. Bettman, sat among the other tomes categorized as "Old Books" by sale organizers.

Dr. Bettman's name jumped out at me instantly, since we have some of his papers here in the Archives (Archives 2001-013). He also donated numerous items to the Medical Museum Collection, some of which can be seen in the Digital Resources Library by doing a word search on "bettman."

This slim volume, published by F.A. Davis Co. in 1931, is (according to the laid-in blurb) "a satirical anthology of 100 one-minute thought-provoking stories, including soliloquies, reflections, narratives, and philosophy." Each of the hundred is titled with a name. The prefatory piece reads:

From the life / of every individual
A useful lesson / may be learned
If we but know / the hidden facts.
That the names / heading these pages
Are assumed / is immaterial;
The real names / may be had
By consulting / any Doctor of Medicine.
When this is done / it will be found
That no two lists / are alike,
Yet every list / is correct.

The pieces are indeed satirical, some of them rather harshly so to the ear of a 20th-century patient--but I suppose patients' stories of doctors are often similarly unjust. Bettman must have spared his friends from scrutiny because he happily signed this copy over to Mrs. W.P. Galen "with kindest regards and best wishes." On the other hand, perhaps he hoped she would recognize herself on the pages within!