A Flash to the Past

Although I had never been to an archive before, I had some general ideas of what it would be like before the trip. Basically, I just thought that it would be similar to a library. I wasn’t expecting it to have so many different types of unpublished primary sources—from VCR tapes that had been converted into a video easily shared by USB to books written in Latin from 1778, from framed artwork and maps to a surgical kit used in 1850. The antiquity of these sources really intrigued me and I was fascinated at how we were able to interact and touch the same materials that our predecessors created hundreds of years ago.

The trip consisted of a brief introduction to the archive in the reading room, also known as the face of the archive—what people first see when they enter, followed by a visit to the media room where tapes are converted from one file type to another since many video players are not being produced anymore. We finished the trip by visiting the “stacks”. They are literally stacks of books and other mediums organized by subject dating all the way back to the 18th century (or even older). The archivist had laid out some resources pertaining to the topics of our research projects, mainly focused on the artificial heart and Psychiatric Bulletin, the latter being my project! What I found the most interesting was the surgical kit from the 1850s (pictured below). The archivist explained how blood seeped

IMG_6026

Surgical Kit from 1850-1880

into the cracks of the wooden handles of the instruments and was impossible to clean out completely, creating unsanitary tools to perform each surgery. We were even able to handle these instruments, which was amazing considering their age and the consequences of mishandling them.

When we were allowed to explore the archive on our own, I gravitated towards the Psychiatric Bulletins because they are the focus of my project. Below is a cover of one of the magazines published in 1952, depicting a man in agony, screaming. The title of the painting is Lost Cry, and probably refers to how mentally ill patients are suffering, but people refuse to acknowledge their pain, just how we as viewers cannot audibly hear his cry for help. The Psychiatric Bulletins covered a wide variety of mental illnesses but also

psychiatric bulletin pic
“Lost Cry” front cover artwork; Fall 1952

included other topics pertaining to psychology. One bulletin I noticed was fixated on the topic of alcohol, with almost all articles relating to alcohol abuse and indicated how alcoholism was an illness that could be healed with psychology. The text of the articles was all very engaging to read, enhanced with expressive pictures like this one, and I wished that I could take the bulletins back to read them closely because a lot has changed regarding mental health and stigmas surrounding it since the 1950s.

The archive was an incredible opportunity to have because we are rarely exposed to so many primary sources. These unpublished materials could provide new perspectives on widely held beliefs and allow researchers and us students to explore topics in more depth. Without an archive, these important photographs, magazines, manuscripts, maps, books, tapes—all would be inaccessible and lost forever.

 

 

First Step into an Archive

Prior to this visit at the McGovern Historical Center, I had never visited an archive and had very limited information on its function. I often thought of archives as an unnecessary cross between libraries and museums. However, moments after arriving to the Center, I was taken aback by the accessibility of the archive. I pictured researchers coming to the archive to access materials and the expertise of the archivists. The archivists tag everything in their collection in their database, making it much easier to access when needed. This separates it from both museums and libraries, where the information is either locked up or hidden beneath mountains of other texts. Another aspect of the archive that was interesting and surprising was that all the materials in the archive were one of a kind: originals that did not exist elsewhere. I flipped through magazines dating  back to the 1960s and witnessed medical tools that predate Germ Theory, and I realized both how much we had progressed as a society and how much information was stored within each page and tool.

L0012386 Surgical instruments of the 16th and 17th centuries.

16th Century Surgical Tools (http://www.iflscience.com)

Some items that were most interesting were the magazine articles that advertised various products and services relating to betterment of quality of life. These articles provide an outlet for me to transport myself back into the time period that these authors and researchers were in. Using the information and tools they had in their time, I am able to understand some of the history behind the science that exists today. Understanding the history gives me greater insight to the reasons behind all of these medical practices. I believe that these original, unpublished works at archives can provide important sources of conversation when crafting modern policy in medicine and other fields. The context that this provides can augment our understanding of our past and can give us better judgement for the future.