Thursday, February 21, 2008

Reclamation

Yesterday, we took a short field trip across the Columbia River to the Ft. Vancouver National Historic Site and the Clark County Historical Museum to recover some long-loaned items properly belonging to our archives and Medical Museum Collection.

From Ft. Vancouver, we retrieved the original medical license of Dr. Forbes Barclay (signed by Royal Society member Dr. Astley Cooper, among others), a mortar and pestle, and a pill-making machine. In addition, we got a great inside look at the operations of the Cultural Resources Division from Curator Tessa Langford. Archaeological excavations at the site are still uncovering about 30,000 objects per year! (And we thought we had a backlog...)


Next, it was up the street to the Clark County Historical Museum, housed in a charming 1909 Carnegie Library that was the first building in Vancouver to have electricity. There, we picked up a very heavy scrapbook, created by the citizens of Woodland, WA, for Dr. Carl J. Hoffmann (1882-1970) upon his retirement from practice there. The book is bound in tooled leather, illustrated with a portrait of Hoffmann (see image); the interior pages contain photographs, letters, cards, and reminiscences about the good doctor and his time in Woodland. Equally a celebration of the man and the town, it is a wonderful example of the way in which rural physicians often become indispensable to their communities.

All of these items came back to us after 32 years in excellent condition. They had been well-cared for, used, and enjoyed by the staff of the respective institutions. Loaned in good faith, one set with a written agreement and the other with a handshake, they remained in good hands as staff changed around them, paperwork was lost, and old commitments were forgotten. After tracking down clues and making a few contacts, we rediscovered them and brought them back to their home institution.

Why repatriate materials that have been "missing" so long? The objects were all equally appropriate for the collections of those other repositories, they were seeing some use (if only by staff). But they were not at OHSU, not in Historical Collections & Archives here, the home selected by the donors of the items so many years ago. It was back in 1946 that Mrs. J. Miles and Miss Ciss B. Pratt chose the University of Oregon Medical School as the repository for Barclay's items. Hoffmann's daughter, Helen Moore, brought her father's community-made scrapbook to us in 1975 and handed it over to then Librarian Margaret Hughes, along with some other items, because Hoffmann had graduated from UOMS, and she thought it most fitting that the medical school archives be tasked with the preservation of his memory.

Once a donation is accepted, we think it important to honor the wishes of the donor. If we cannot honor those wishes, we should not accept the donation, no matter how spectacular. Once, years ago, OHSU was offered the papers of Dr. William K. Livingston, former chair of surgery and pioneer in pain management. The collection was large, impressive, and important. Unfortunately, the staffing situation at that time made it unlikely that the collection would be processed in a timely manner, thus rendering it essentially inaccessible to researchers. The decision was made, rightly I think, to refer the donor to UCLA, where the material would be properly cared for and where it would complement other collections pertaining to palliative care.

Do we wish, now, that we had that collection? Oh, you betcha. A lot. Do we regret the decision? No. Archival materials are unique and can only be housed in one repository. It should be one that can care for materials, make them accessible to researchers, and commit to their long-term preservation. And we should honor the donors of these materials, without whom our cupboards would be quite bare.

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