When I heard that our FWIS class would be using archives for our final project, I was both surprised and extremely nervous. Like the vast majority of our class, I had never worked with archives, and their purpose had always remained a mystery to me. I predicted a day full of latex gloves and stone-faced archivists hovering over the archives, watching our every move to ensure that we would not tear pages or mar precious historical documents with finger oils.
This prediction, however, did not hold once we arrived at the McGovern Historical Center. The archivists welcomed us excitedly. Instead of spending the introductory period chiding the class on possible mistakes that we may make in handling archives, they discussed the work of the McGovern Center so that we might inspect the documents with a clear purpose and keen interest. When we reached the archives that we would be studying, the archivists simply allowed us to explore without their watchful eyes.
It was at that moment that I began to truly understand the purpose of archives. Lectures in history provide essential information about the past, but archives of history allow you to literally come face-to-face with this information.
While we were inspecting these documents, I was able to examine medical instruments created before germ theory had been widely accepted. These instruments had handles made of wood, which caused blood from patients to often seep through. Because of this wood, physicians were not fully able to remove sickly blood from their instruments. I remembered in history classes when we had touched upon germ theory and its importance in the field of health. But here, I was able to see how the theory has drastically changed the way in which we view medicine and its instruments.
I realized that archives allow for the personalization of history; they force us to apply our own knowledge of the past in order to understand the context and importance of what we are seeing. This application, I now understand, is vital in creating a complete perspective on historical issues.