Prior to visiting the McGovern Historical Center last Thursday, I had never truly considered research possibilities outside of libraries and laboratories. To me, a place full of unique resources and abundant primary accounts seems almost too good to be true. It was actually quite amazing to be able to learn more about what an archive is, and how it functions. Without the trip, it is highly likely that I would have never stepped foot into an archive or realized how significant and useful they are.
Last Thursday, as we were guided by Sandra Yates, an archivist at the McGovern Historical Center, I felt as though I had encountered bits and pieces of the past personally. Sandra clarified my definition of what an archive was by informing us that the McGovern museum typically takes personal collections and finds ways to store them. They have personal accounting books, interviews, footage of surgeries, old surgical tools, old uniforms, paintings, architectural sketches, and much more. The McGovern Historical Center in particular has a large collection of medical archives from doctors and hospitals in Houston. To actually visit an archive was quite an interesting experience.
Prior to our visit, I had never thought much about what an archive might look like. I imagined that it might be fairly focused on paper preservation, since I know that many different types of paper disintegrate over time as they are exposed to oxygen, and that many libraries have difficulty maintaining their collections. I vaguely imagined a large warehouse full to the brim of diaries and legal documents. When I finally stepped foot into the archive, it was quite surprising to see a cozy viewing room with actual artifacts on display. I had not expected our class to be able to touch anything without gloves. However, once there, it became apparent to me that the archive we visited was much more inviting and casual than what I had been picturing in my head.
One of the most impressive features of the collection was how much had already been digitized by the McGovern Historical Center’s staff. Many of the recorded interviews have now been stored online. Many of the video footage has been transferred from film to VHS or floppy disk. The archive has definitely kept up with modern preferences in terms of information access. Plus, it means that should anything happen with the building itself (through water leakage, a fire, a hurricane, etc.), then the digitized items may still be accessible.
As we were given a tour of the archive, it became quite obvious that the McGovern Historical Center is a highly organized and well maintained collection. As our class filed through the stacks, I found myself yearning to read some of the more personal volumes, or look more closely at some of the larger objects like the briefcases and paintings. Within the small selection that Sandra and her team laid out for us, I was particularly gravitated towards the academic journals about psychology, and the materials about the artificial heart. It was incredible to me that the archive had actual footage of the recipient of the artificial heart waking up, or that we were actually able to touch the journals and pictures that had been laid out. In particular, it was interesting to me to see the contrast present between psychological treatments and beliefs during the 1950’s and now. Of all the medical disciplines, it seems that mental health has changed some of the most in the past six or so decades.
Overall, the trip we took as a class is one I will refer to often in the future as I go about my research. Archives are a resource that I had never even considered before enrolling in this course. However, I will now be able to use one should I ever need to. I believe that the general population is unaware of what archives do, and I was no different before Thursday. Truly, archives face a difficult challenge in curating unique and irreplaceable works.