Friday, June 12, 2015

Western Roundup 2015

Well, dear readers, I’ve been absent from the digital airwaves for the last 2 weeks due to a conference, which will be the subject of this post, and a short staycation.  Due to the absence, I have decided to go with a massive post to cover for my regrettable, yet brief, departure from the blog.

I had the pleasure of attending the 2015 Western Roundup in Denver Colorado which brought together archivists from a variety of associations include the Northwest Archivists (oo-rah), the Conference of Inter-Mountain Archivists, the Society of Rocky Mountain Archivists and the Society of California Archivists for a major gathering of archival information exchange, networking and fun.  Yes, there is always fun.  In fact, this is like a metal festival for me, in that I get to spend several days engaging my profession, learning and growing while getting to hang out and interact with the professionals in the region in a relaxed environment.

What follows will be a grueling play-by-play of the severe awesomeness of this conference.  You’ll have to excuse my excitement, but I thrive on these events, ever since I joined NWA in Salem in 2012 to present I've been hooked.

Day 1 – I caught an early morning flight from PDX to Denver and arrived at DEN roughly 30 minutes before the Archives West (Archives & Manuscripts) meeting for the Orbis Cascade Alliance that was to take place at the University of Colorado.  The cab got me to the U roughly 5 minutes after the start of meeting, but due to some unfortunate directions by University staff I spent roughly 40 minutes running around, which included stopping by the daycare facility as it had the same acronym as the meeting space.

The meeting was excellent and I got an opportunity to catch up on all of the developments and plans for the next few years with the Alliance.  We discussed providing MARC records for unique collections (archives) and what types of search functionality we are missing from the re-design of the search portal.

After the meeting I went back to the hotel and met up with Bryce Henry, Portland State University Archivist for Capital Projects & Construction and we took a short tour of some music stores in Denver, east of downtown.  On our way back to the hotel we got caught in a torrential downpour.  I met very briefly with the session members for the presentations I was to moderate the next day and then went with Bryce and Josh Zimmerman, Archivist for the Archdiocese of Seattle our for barbecue and drinks on a neat little dive bar place on the edge of downtown.

Day 2 – Started off with the plenary address by Patricia Limerick who spoke on the literature of the west and its connections to conquest of the west.  Patricia also terrified a room full of archivists by waiving around primary source materials and at one point dropping one.  The single gasp of 150+ archivists was audible.

Right after the plenary address I set up for the session “Student Curators: Exhibiting Narratives from Special Collections and Archives.”  This session included some brief opening comments by yours truly, followed by excellent presentations by Crystal Rodgers, Student Assistant for HC&A who discussed her process for developing HC&A’s Summer 2014 exhibit.  Crystal was followed by Laura Cray, current student assistant at the Isabel McDonald Library at OHSU’s West Campus, who spoke about her experiences creating a digital exhibit on the centennial of the Oregon Extension Service.  Laura’s presentation included one of my favorite parts of any presentation which is a bulleted, and then expanded upon verbally, list of “lessons learned” or recommendations for taking this process home and utilizing in one’s own shop.  Lastly, Seonaid Valiant, Ayer Reference Librarian for the Newberry Library, gave a fascinating talk on her work with unprocessed collections, her dissertation and her experience as co-curator on an exhibit at the University of Chicago which highlighted the relationships between of University of Chicago professors and Mexico.  The Q&A was lively and interesting, with several audience members wanting to know more about the standard exhibit procedures at OHSU, wanting to know about how students were not supported in their projects and some audience members gave recommendations for carrying some of the research forward into an asset for the archives.

Next I went to the sessions titled “Holistic Archives: New Ways to Connect with Customers, Donors and Each Other.”  I went to this because it was by four members of the Denver Public Library and I find it fascinating how libraries deal with the archival mission.  They had some excellent workflows and suggestions for dealing with “drop-off” type of accessions, weeding and de-accessioning, and training of staff to deal with different areas of archival preservation and description.

To cap off the day of work I attended the NWA Board Meeting in my role as Chair of the Education and Professional Development Committee.  We had a great year as a committee and I enjoyed talking about our projects and what we were hoping to accomplish in the next year.  I was fortunate enough to have garnered enough support to absorb a committee into Education and Professional Development, giving us the ability to offer student and professional development scholarships.  It was a long meeting and I was pretty thrilled when we all went off to the Denver Public Library for the reception.  The reception was followed by staying out late with colleagues from Oregon that I don’t get to see enough of.  Great time to see what projects people are working on and where their challenges are and what they are doing to overcome them.

Day 3 – Started off with a 4-hour bus ride out to Black and Read, a music store (with a metal specialty) that exists on the fringes of Denver.  According to Google it was actually 15 miles from my hotel, but the bus system worked very well and we got back in time for the afternoon sessions, the first that I went to was:
“State of the State Archives” which included reports from Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.  I always find it fascinating what is going on in the State Archives.  These archives have the same mission as any archives, however the way in which they do their work differs from shop to shop and can involve things like understanding the political arena in your area, working with Federal entities, and working with state advisory boards.  What I usually bring back from these sessions is a better understanding of the entire ecosystem of archival challenges and some unique ways of dealing with those same challenges.  In my own experience I have found that some of my solutions for common issues in a university setting were ones I learned about while working in government archives (city and county).

The last session of the day was “Collaboration between Tribal and Non-Tribal Organizations: Sharing Expertise, Knowledge, and Cultural Resources.”  Very interesting work being done to collaborate across storage needs and cultural requirements.  I very much appreciated some of the on-the-ground tactics that are employed in ensuring understanding and cultural awareness between the two organizations.  One of the presenters, Steve Bingo, gave an excellent overview of the work being done by the Sustainable Heritage Network.  This work includes setting up locations for members to do scanning if they do not have access to the equipment and providing online training videos to enhance and increase expertise in various archival skill areas.

Spent another late night hanging out with archivists from Pacific University, Willamette University, PSU, Seattle Archdiocese, Museum of Flight and a number of other institutions.  I love these moments.  As I mentioned earlier in this post, it is these conferences that keep me jazzed, keep me interested and keep me focused on the work of archives and how it’s changing.

The next morning was the incredibly early NWA Business Meeting.  This meeting is a chance for the NWA board members to report out on activities for the year, welcome new elected officials and discuss the state of the organization.  It was a great opportunity for me to get in front of the membership and go over some of the program the Education Committee has developed and to advertise what we are doing moving forward.  There is plenty to look forward to and I cannot wait for the next year’s annual conference.

Sorry for the lack of images on this post.  I didn’t take any photos the entire time I was in Denver, due to just how excellent the time was.  It was a time when I could either engage or document, but not both, and I have no regrets.

Talk to you all soon.  Up next I hope to have another blog post about bizarre materials in the archives.  In addition, we have had some great new accessions in the past few weeks and I would be lax in my duties if I did not highlight the archival gold we continue to prospect on your behalf, dear readers.

P.S. I finally got a chance to see "Blucifer," the demon horse of Denver airport!!!!!

History of Medicine Collection spotlight: Lithopedions!

Last week, while searching for an appropriately impressive illustration to honor National Skull Appreciation Day (yes, this is a thing) on HC&A's Instagram, I pulled out William Cheselden's mid-18th century text, "Osteographia, or, The anatomy of the bones : in fifty-six plates." Turning the pages, I came across the illustration below and let out an excited "OOH!":

The table description reads, "A bony chalk foetus which was said to have lain in utero (I suppose in the faloppian [sic] tube) twenty-six years: Communicated to me by Monsieur Arneau owner of the french anatomy waxwork"

I recognized the image immediately as a lithopedion, also known as a "stone baby." The term derives from the ancient Greek root litho (λίθο), meaning "stone" and the word paedion (παιδίον), meaning "child" -- literally, stone-child. Lithopedions are incredibly rare, accounting for just 1.5-1.8% of abdominal ectopic pregnancies, which in turn only occur in approximately 1-2% of all pregnancies (1). A lithopedion forms when a fetus in an ectopic pregnancy dies, and is too large to be reabsorbed by the mother's body (they have been known to occur anywhere from 14 weeks gestation to full term). In order to protect itself from infection, the mother's body creates a protective calciferous barrier around the fetus, encasing it. Some recorded cases list the lithopedion remaining in the woman's body for decades -- a 2013 news item noted an 82-year-old woman in Bogota, Columbia carrying a stone fetus for 40 years! (2)

Fewer than 300 lithopedions have been recorded in medical history (3). As you might guess, lithopedions were more common in earlier centuries, and more recently in areas without access to quality prenatal care. Obstetric ultrasonography didn't come on the scene until the 1960s, and so prior generations of doctors had no way to see inside the womb and diagnose an ectopic pregnancy before it was too late. Even if they could have diagnosed it, the prospect of obstetric surgery (or any surgery, for that matter...) was quite dangerous and the surgical removal of a fetus and placenta from a mother's body was not likely result in a positive outcome. As such, a number of lithopedions were only discovered upon autopsy, often decades after the mother first had experienced symptoms of pregnancy with no delivery. Women who experienced this phenomenon, and their physicians, would report the failure to deliver, often accompanied by pain and other symptoms for years, but many would experience the return of their menstrual cycles and even subsequent successful pregnancies and live births (4).

Another book from our History of Medicine Collection contains a lithopedion lithograph, an 1899 edition of Ernst Ziegler's General Pathology. In the process of describing the formation of a lithopedion in its "Arrests of Development" chapter, the text  uses such terms as "enshrouded" "mummification" -- interesting, therefore, that the accompanying lithograph depicts the tissue surrounding the fetus as looking like mummy's bandages in popular renderings.

Illustration from Ernst Ziegler, General Pathology (New York: William Wood and Company, 1899)

You may think that my instant recognition occurred because I work in the special collections unit of a medical library, but actually I knew what I was looking at because several months ago I read Lyz Lenz's piece on lithopedions on the blog Jezebel. Her article, which outlines the phenomenon and draws in a feminist reading of its surrounding folklore, was memorable to me as an example of how historical medical information can support contemporary cultural critique. Lenz describes the case of the lithopedion of Sens, concerning a stone fetus removed from the corpse of Madame Colombe Charti in 1582, believed to have remained in Charti's body for 28 years following a pregnancy at age 40. One of the attending physicians, Jean d'Ailleboust, acquired the lithopedion and wrote a pamphlet on the case and drew quite the fanciful accompanying image of the autopsy and extraction, which I tracked down via the National Library of France:

[Illustration de Portentosum lithopaedion.. .] / [Non identifié] ; Jean Ailleboust, aut. du texte

In his pamphlet, Ailleboust attributed the stone fetus to a lack of warmth in the womb and dryness of the mother's blood. Lenz points out that this assignment of blame can be immediately woven into two larger historical or cultural narratives: The history of obstetrics is rife with examples of attributing fetal abnormalities to personal or behavioral failings of the mother. In addition, there are a number of myths or folktales across cultures that associate female coldness, absence, or malevolence with human petrification -- think Medusa or the Chronicles of Narnia (5).

In conclusion, our rare books are full of unusual surprises and serve as documentary evidence of social, cultural, and political attitudes that have shaped health & healing practices throughout history. Pretty neat!


(1) Dr Vasileios Rafailidis and Dr Frank Gaillard et al., "Lithopaedion,",

(2) Gillian Mohney, "Rare 40-Year-Old 'Stone Baby' Found in Elderly Woman," ABCNews, December 13, 2013,

(3) Jackie Rosenhek, "Fetal Rock," Doctor's Review (September 2008),

(4) Edward Emmet Montgomery, Practical Gynecology (Philadelphia: P. A. Blakiston's Sons & Co., 1907), p. 596.

(5) Lyz Lenz, "A History of Lithopedions: When a Fetus Turns to Stone," Jezebel, November 11, 2014.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

LSTA grant project update

It's full steam ahead on our LSTA grant project, Public Health in Oregon: Accessing Historical Data for Scientific Discovery.

Over the past few weeks, our graduate student assistants Sherra Hopkins and Rachel Blume started scanning collections Max and I selected, and creating metadata for the resulting digital objects.

The first round of digitization included our 1891-1901 record of deaths, a rich collection of data that we think will interest many researchers. I was fascinated to look at these scans in detail, which tell us so much about the state of public health in our state in the late 19th century.

Unsurprisingly, we see many deaths from tuberculosis. It's interesting that it's variously described as "tuberculosis," "phthisis pulmonalis," and "consumption." What do the differences in terminology reflect? Were these terms understood differently, or did it just depend on who was reporting the information, and what term they preferred?

Also fascinating is a report on a woman named Mary Preiss, who "committed suicide by taking carbolic acid." Her place of death is "French Flora Oberle's establishment." I immediately suspected that the establishment was a brothel and that Mary was a prostitute. Some quick research I did on the Oberle family of Portland supports that hunch so far!
There are over 100 more scans of these records waiting in the wings, all with some amazing stories to tell about people in Portland. Soon we hope to be able to show the process of converting these analog materials into a machine-readable dataset!