While driving to the McGovern Historical Center, my thoughts were both wild and restrained. I wondered about the layout, age, and purpose of an archive as I tried to recall fragments of information that I had learned over the years. Still, my musing remained grounded in the notion that an archive was a mix of a library and museum. Even after entering the mundane building and observing the lounge area, I still could not discern what made archives unique. Fortunately, our guide, Sandra Yates, allowed us to enter the storage room where the stacks were kept.
Ms. Yates explained that an archive was a collection of many different types of materials, including anything from books to architectural designs, cassettes, and even actual surgical equipment. I learned that archives are for specific topics. For example, the McGovern Historical Center handles materials related to health and medicine. Moreover, the material is unpublished work that is donated by individuals or organizations, which means that every archive is unique.
As our group concluded the tour, we were allowed to view and engage with specific materials on the table. Because my group’s project wasn’t available, I gravitated towards something similar: a 17th century anatomy book. The book was written in German; sifting through the centuries-old pages, I saw many diagrams and illustrations that depicted body parts. Truthfully, I would not have known that it was an anatomy book except for the label because the illustrations hardly seemed to represent an actual body. I came to a conclusion at that point. An archive’s primary function wasn’t to provide factual knowledge like museums do. Instead, researchers use archives to analyze the trends, changes, or transformations of human knowledge.
Take the surgical tool pictured above. It is a 16th century device, and the McGovern Center had a similar one except that the handle was made of wood. Right beside this tool was a book with pictures of improved tools. The archivists even allowed us to hold and touch the surgical tools, which is an experience that one looking at pictures simply can’t attain. As our guide explained, the problem with the wooden handle was that blood became easily trapped inside, making it hard to clean the equipment. Only being able to observe either the tool or the equipment pictures would be interesting, but it would not be useful. By viewing both, researchers can extrapolate how attitudes toward hygiene and sanitation changed and manifested themselves in equipment. The detailed and varied materials of the archive allow researchers to amplify the knowledge gained from the two sources alone.
Exiting the building, I walked away with much more appreciation and understanding of the purpose of an archive. The careful preservation and sheer amount of detailed information may never be fully analyzed, but the fact that it is available and accessible ensures that one looking for such materials can find them. The specificity, historical value, and accessibility of archival materials can be matched neither by a library nor a museum.
WikiMedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Large_amputation_saw,_16th_century._Wellcome_L0011386.jpg#file. Accessed September 2016.