Friday, March 27, 2009

New web resources

The recent moratorium on changes to the Historical Collections & Archives web site having been lifted, new resources are now available online, including:

On our Historical Collections list, up-to-date inventories of the--
Biographical Files (PDF)
Subject Files (PDF)
Historical Image Collection (PDF)

On the Lectures page, streaming video of the most recent talk in the History of Medicine Society Lecture Series (Stevens on radiation oncology in Oregon).

On the Oral History page, a current listing of all interviews conducted to date.

Stay tuned for updates to the listing of guides available for archival collections as well as online components of both our current exhibit (on radiology in Oregon) and upcoming exhibit (ophthalmic objects from the collection of Kenneth C. Swan, MD).

As always, if you don't see it online, contact us: we're more than happy to rummage around behind the digital curtain for you to see what we can find.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Unique from Utrecht

In the ongoing saga that is assessment of the early book collections in offsite storage, we've run across another little gem: a catalog from the library of the Tandheelkundig Instituut at the Rijksuniversiteit te Utrecht (now called Universiteit Utrecht).

The OHSU History of Dentistry Collection is the only library in the United States which currently holds the Catalogus van de Bibliotheek van het Tandheelkundig Instituut en van tandheelkundige boekwerken in de Universiteitsbibliotheek--and while we only have volume 1 of 2 (part two was published in 1943), it might be nice for researchers to know that they don't have to contact one of the three Dutch libraries holding the full set to get some sense of the dental institute's collection.

As far as I can tell (Dutch not being a language I'm strong in), the Tandheelkundig Instituut is no longer functioning. But I did find images of it in the online Utrecht Archives. One is included here, since I think it says we can use 72 dpi res images freely (you can check my work on the downloaden page).

It's reassuring to see that the titles we now consider American classics in dentistry were also considered worthy of purchase across the pond: the catalog lists such iconic authors as GV Black (in English, Dutch, and French), CN Johnson (English and Dutch), and George Evans (English and German), among many, many others.

For students of Dutch dentistry or those interested in the transference of scientific and clinical information from the US to the Netherlands, this is a pretty neat find.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tech-know-logy or tech-no-logy?: further musings on weeding in a digital age

Monday's rant on knowledge obsolescence and the valuation of technic to determine its long-term worth apparently struck a cord with folks--and not necessarily librarians (who have been dealing with or avoiding this question since Alexandria burned).

I hadn't thought much more about it until this morning, when I participated in a discussion about library policies on purchasing ebooks. Though I am by nature and training a printophile, I'm certainly not a Luddite, and the idea of providing access to core textbooks online is one I wholeheartedly embrace.

But the concepts of weeding and permanent retention are, if not totally alien, at least very new to the wild west that is the web. Lately, there have been many large-scale, highly-publicized efforts to bring some stability to digital resources, all of which are Very Good Things for those of us interested in keeping information accessible.

But what happens when the very nature of the digital objects you're trying to save, changes? Take ebooks: more and more of them are becoming what the library world has taken to calling "integrating resources." Which means, there is no 11th edition, 12th edition, 13th edition. There's just the current edition. Which is great for students and teachers. But what does that mean for libraries like ours, who have traditionally kept all editions of the classic textbooks? Older editions show us the development of medical knowledge in a given area, but also shed light on changes in medical education and dissemination of information. Once publishers stop putting out any print editions at all (which will happen, for sure), where will we go to track those trends?

This problem has already begun to plague us here in a very local sense: the last course catalog for the School of Medicine in the collections is from 1993-1994. Not long after that, the school went to online-only course descriptions and ceased printing catalogs. The School of Nursing still prints catalogs (Reason No. 8 why we love nurses), but anyone fifty years hence wanting to track changes in the medical curriculum here will need to go to other, more diffuse, sources.

OK, so let's say we decide that we can do some collection development of web-based resources and we've solved the problems inherent in maintaining those in usable formats (which are legion, in my opinion). What happens if the chain of ownership is broken? Curation ends; data sits, unmigrated for some period of time. Will a computer drive uncovered a thousand years from now still be decipherable? Sure, they just figured out the Antikythera Mechanism, but you can see that with the naked eye. Maybe I'm being pessimistic, but I think these considerations of what's worth saving are more important now than ever--the opposite of what you'll hear from a lot of digital gurus, who think that unlimited data storage will end the need for any kind of concerted weeding at all.

Can you imagine nothing ever getting tossed? That might be worse than the alternative....

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Medicine in context

Today's meditation has arisen from a series of reference questions (formal and not) brought to our doorstep this week, all of which seem to be gelling around a common theme: the inability to discuss, in any worthwhile manner, a single event or publication in medicine without a consideration of the context (or milieu, if you prefer, and you're a little bit snobbish) in which that event/publication occurred.

Three completely different angles on this truism/conundrum have presented themselves in the past 24 hours:

1. Physician trained to write for medical/scientific journals now seeks to expand his writing to the historical press. His initial "draft"--which he calls done--is concise, direct, and without description of extraneous factors. It makes little sense to the historically-minded editor, who wants him to "flesh it out." He asks: what else would they want to know? Well, for starters: Why do we care about this event? Why was it significant? Why did it happen in Oregon? What became of the key players afterwards? Was the chair of Pharmacology wearing those god-awful plaid pants you always see him in in photos? If so, what did the folks from Washington DC make of his getup? Of course, I digress, but the point is that there are a wealth of details that could inform this historical report, none of which immediately occurred to our very intelligent and capable physician friend, because he's been trained to focus only on proximate causes. Good medicine, bad history.

2. Historian seeks information on "impact factor" of medical articles published in the 1930s. Oh, if I had a penny for every time I wished, along with a patron, that all the citations from the old Index Medicus volumes were available in PubMed, I'd have enough pennies to award NLM a grant to do just that. In the meantime, we can gather data on journals indexed during the 1930s from the printed volumes, to try to establish whether the articles in question came from reputable sources. If the article became a true classic, it might be listed in Morton's medical bibliography (refer to Friday's rant) or a specialty bibliography. We can look for obituaries and other biographical pieces on the articles' authors, to see whether someone else has done the legwork for us ("Dr. Miller's most significant contribution to medicine came in his 1932 publication of the first case report..."). The historian, who is not a physician, wanted to know how you can tell when a medical fact/procedure/theory becomes "common knowledge." I think it's safe to say that medical education is about the most conservative of medical arenas, and that if a fact has made it into textbooks, the medical community has come to some consensus on it. And luckily we do tend to keep runs of textbooks, unlike lab manuals (refer to Monday's rant).

3. Patient seeks information on potential treatment, developed in the 1920s and subsequently abandoned. Without formal medical training or extensive experience in historical research, a patron looks for information on a technique from the 1920s. One paper has been identified as the "pearl" to which other relevant information should accrete. But what are the underlying assumptions in the selection of that one article, and the assumptions then used to expand the search? If a researcher is listed as lead author among a group of three or four, does that mean he did the work? Does it mean he conducted the tests? If another article cites this pearl, is it a citation of method or result? How was the information on the technique disseminated, if not through the peer-reviewed literature? Was it too insignificant to devote space to in the published article (refer to #1 above)? If so, was it perhaps submitted as a report at a conference? A presentation to a faculty group? Did the developer of the technique show it to a student who subsequently joined the faculty at Wisconsin, where he showed it to another student, who then came to Oregon and conducted more tests? Under what circumstances, in what venue, in what format might a description of the technique have been captured?

The key to finding and understanding any information is knowing how, when, why, and where it was produced. And you thought it was easy being a librarian....

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Obsolescence of Knowledge: a meditation on weeding

When does knowledge become obsolete? And I mean knowledge, not just information. Information obsolescence seems like an easier problem because the bits are smaller: at some point, old phone numbers are truly obsolete. Old email addresses returned by mailer daemons are obsolete.

But what about groups of information bits that, taken together, become technic? Many people still know how to use a rotary phone even though they have nearly disappeared over the past twenty years. Is that knowledge, then, obsolete? What if you come across a very old phone booth in a rural area, still connected, but with a rotary dial? Knowledge of the old style of dialing might save you a longer trip to the next hub of civilization.

A very obvious example of a technic that will never go out of style is the ability to start a fire without matches. Sure, most of us may never need to do this, but if we're caught without matches and need heat or cooked food to survive, the knowledge of Ways to Make Fire becomes a matter of life and death.

So, kids in youth organizations routinely learn how to start fires, but not how to dial old phones--but they may learn Morse code, a communication technology from a far earlier era. How do we decide what to keep and what to toss? Because it's clear we can't take it all with us.

I've been musing on this since a patron asked us to help him locate an old technique for removing the adrenal medulla from animals. Nowadays, you can buy lab rats pre-demedullated. Is the extraction technique used today the same as that referred to in studies from the turn of the twentieth century? Well, as it turns out, it's a bit hard to say. A standard protocol for removing the adrenal medulla is available in current lab manuals, so a lab manual from the late 1920s or 1930s should illustrate contemporary techniques.

Oh, right: most libraries get rid of old lab manuals when new ones come out. Why? Because a tech using an old protocol is likely to come up with a different result, and that could be dangerous. And in a medical library setting, anything that's potentially dangerous has got to go. Clinical handbooks. Drug reference guides. Old lab techniques.

But wait! our researcher says. I now need that information for some other purpose. I know it's outdated and shouldn't necessarily be used in a clinical setting, but I need to compare my results with previously published studies. You can trust me to use the information in a safe and appropriate manner.

Therein lies the weeding rub: where to stash the almost-up-to-date materials, away from the lazy or rushed hands of the resident who needs some book right now (who cares if the new one is checked out! the old one should do just as well!), until enough time has passed that we can all agree that the information contained therein is obsolete--though the knowledge imparted is not.

There probably is no good answer, so I'll stop my musings there. But it sure would be nice if we could place that call now, rather than trudge another 30 miles through the stacks to see if we can't use the book in the next little town over....