Seeing is Believing: Archives and the Personalization of History

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archivists hovering over the archives, watching our every move to ensure that we would not tear pages or mar precious historical documents with finger oils.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.

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19th century surgical instruments

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.

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3 thoughts on “Seeing is Believing: Archives and the Personalization of History

  1. Hi Hannah,

    I similarly shared your excitement of being able to touch instruments from another era. I had not made the specific connection to the germ theory, but now that you bring it up, it is awe-inspiring to simply think how far we have come in our knowledge. The wooden handles that you refer to that allowed patients’ blood to seep through are an interesting observation and certainly help us understand from where our knowledge today originally evolved. Your article also makes me wonder if one day, the instruments surgeons use today in the medical field will be viewed with as much awe by groups of students centuries into the future. Have we reached a saturation point in our knowledge of the medical field, will we continue to advance forward, or perhaps, is it possible that we regress to previous methods?

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    • I hadn’t thought about your perspective before on how future students may find our ‘developed’ technology in their own archives. It’s interesting that you also brought up the point about regressing to previous methods, as I think that there is often too much emphasis on moving ‘forward.’ We continually attempt to create new, innovative ways with too little regard for the ways in which it was done in the past. Perhaps the best way to complete a certain task has already been discovered and cannot be improved. That being said, “change is the only constant,” and I’m curious to think of how future students may critique our current technology after some new theory is developed, much like we have done with pre-germ theory instruments.

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  2. I strongly resonated with your last paragraph about “archives are personalizations of history”. They remind us how far we’ve gone in the development of science, and we can actually see what did the accomplishments bring to the world. I was so excited to see the log of the artificial heart transplant – I wouldn’t think much of it if I read it on newspaper in texts, but the step-by-step film reproduced the scene to life and proved me that it was an extraordinary feat.

    A famous quote of Confucius reads, “consider the past and you shall know the future.” We probably won’t become fortune tellers about how modern medicine is going to develop, but we can definitely learn more about the importance of the technology we have now, as you said in your last paragraph.

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