Learning from the Past

From the introduction that Sandra Yates (one of the archivists) gave, I learned that an archive is defined as unpublished material, and that archivists take pictures of the items before doing inventory. Ms. Yates then led us into the technology room, where archivists digitize the information on floppy disks to make the contents more accessible.

We eventually moved to the stacks, which consisted of shelves that were filled with books and other files. In the stacks, we had the opportunity to work with material relating to our archive topics. The material ranged from 1969 articles on Dr. Cooley’s artificial heart to surgical tools from the 1800s (pictures taken at the McGovern Historical Center below).

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Surgical kit, circa 1850-1880 (photo taken at the McGovern Historical Center)

The material turned out to be more accessible that I had thought—I figured it was a “look, but don’t touch” situation—because we could actually touch and interact with the material. Ms. Yates soon told us that it is sometimes safer to handle archival material without gloves, because this way, we can actually feel what we are holding (and not accidentally rip or break anything).

During our time there, I gravitated toward the articles on the artificial heart to learn more about the context of the experiment. The articles were intriguing because they explored the role of federal guidelines in medicine, as well as this ongoing question: how closely must a physician follow these guidelines when conducting clinical trials of a new discovery? I also found the Psychiatric Bulletin compelling due to its focus on mental illness, which this artwork (below) exemplifies. It is aptly titled Lost Cry—although we can see that the individual is in anguish, we cannot actually hear the individual’s cry through the artwork; this reflects how mental illness is often internalized.


“Lost Cry” (1952), photo taken at the McGovern Historical Center

Before visiting the McGovern Historical Center, I did not have a clear idea of what sort of materials or resources it would have, but figured it would be full of antiques, such as old records and books with yellowing pages. Other than that, I did not expect anything specific in terms of archive topics. The archive focuses on material from the Texas Medical Center, but its scope continues to develop due to the far-reaching implications of medicine and public health. My visit has shown me why archives are important: they have the ability to preserve moments and topics in the past for further analysis and research.


Something else that surprised me was the zombie outbreak map and the logo for the zombie outbreak team on the walls of the technology room. After our visit to the archive, I looked up the zombie outbreak map and found out that World War Z inspired the researchers behind the map (http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2015/03/20/researchers-create-online-simulator-for-ways-to-avoid-zombie-outbreak.html). Although a zombie outbreak is fictional, mapping this event can actually help gauge how people would respond if something similar (like a pandemic) ever happened.


  • FoxNews.com. “Cornell Researchers Create Online Simulator to Map Zombie Outbreak | Fox News.” Fox News. FOX News Network, 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 01 Sept. 2016.

One thought on “Learning from the Past

  1. I was also pleasantly surprised with both the content of the archives and how we were able to engage directly with each of them. Looking around at what was laid out as well as listening to what Sandra Yates discussed about the archives made me question how these were each ‘chosen’ to be preserved as archives. We’ve all heard the phrase: “History belongs to the victor,” and I wondered if ‘the victor’ has a role in being able to choose which materials are preserved (often historical documents become victims in wars as well) and how. What primary documents we are left with would subsequently impact our understanding of the past even if we do decide to write from an ‘unbiased’ perspective.

    I hadn’t come across the zombie outbreak map that you posted before and found it extremely interesting. It’s an engaging way to learn about the science behind mapping out possible pandemics from a more ‘fun’ angle (if you can really call a possible zombie apocalypse fun). I hope that similar projects will be created to introduce students to other complex tasks with a hands-on approach.


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