Travels to the Rockefeller Archive Center

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to New York to visit the Rockefeller Archive Center in the picturesque Hudson River Valley. Spring had arrived in Sleepy Hollow, and the dogwood and redbud trees were in full bloom.

Rockefeller Archive Center

Rockefeller Archive Center

The Rockefeller Archive Center is the repository for the grant files of Rockefeller philanthropies and other prominent charitable and nonprofit organizations, most recently the Ford Foundation. Collections tell the history of philanthropy as well as the development of local, national, and international programs that span the performing arts and museums, environmental and historic preservation, economic development, science and medicine, public health and social welfare, education, and international understanding.

Exploring the archive’s diverse holdings was a great reminder of how primary sources about people, ideas, and programs can be collected and maintained by the entities that funded them, not just by their affiliated agencies or institutions. Like a university archive, individuals have donated their papers to the collection, such as German scientist and Nobel Laureate Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915). Ehrlich had a strong relationship with the newly-founded Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, today Rockefeller University. Still, the Rockefeller Archive Center is unique for the geographic scope and range of subjects found in the archive’s grant files, posters, reports, photographs, etc. In fact, the original Rockefeller Foundation files are arranged by country.

The Rockefeller family’s collection is impressive, too. John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s massive roll-top desk from the Manhattan headquarters of the Standard Oil Company is a highlight of an onsite tour. My personal favorite was something from the vaults — an American Red Cross uniform circa World War I. (View photographs of nurses’ uniforms from the Naval History & Heritage Command.) Such a connection with the history of nursing makes sense; the RAC convened a workshop on “Nursing History in the Global Perspective” in 2012.

To learn more about the Rockefeller Foundation, visit the new centennial website, 100 Years: The Rockefeller Foundation. The website includes a digital library of documents, still images and videos. To search the RAC holdings, explore the online collections and catalog called DIMES.

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Election predictions from the past

Election predictions — not a new thing as I was reminded last year while working with pre-Civil War records from the New Orleans Custom House.

On Election Day, the election prediction I have in mind is from the presidential election of 1860. This particular prediction is significant, as I wrote on the National Archives Text Message blog Inside the New Orleans Custom House, because it was written by Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard in July 1860. Beauregard’s predictions were wrong. (He projected the Southern Democratic candidate John C. Breckingridge to win by a slim margin.) Less than a year later,  Beauregard would become the Confederate general who fired on Fort Sumter. Therefore, the 1860 prediction represents part of a particularly fractious chapter in our nation’s history.  However, with its meticulous breakdown of states, candidates, and probabilities, it also demonstrates how detailed electoral predictions were, even without the benefit of dry erase boards and touch-screen electoral maps.

Presidential Election Prediction by J. K. Duncan and G. T. Beauregard, July 1860 (The National Archives)

You can find more documents from the New Orleans Custom House on the National Archives Flickr page or in the ARC catalog. Learn about the new digitization project underway in New Orleans to make colonial Louisiana records more accessible.

For all things presidential, check out The American Presidency Project from UC Santa Barbara, an online resource and searchable database of American presidential papers, including executive orders, proclamations, and public addresses.

Where is the history of medicine in Texas?

Texas has a rich history of medical education, research, and innovation. Yet, much like the candy-cane, striped shirt-wearing Waldo, the history of medicine, public health, and its allied sciences is often hidden in plain sight.

This history can be found in the architecture of hospitals and medical schools like Cooks Children’s iconic blue roof in Fort Worth and Old Red at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Or the minor procedures and major surgeries that comprise Western medicine today like the heart transplant pioneered by Houston surgeons Denton Cooley and Michael E. DeBakey. It can also be found in the programs and educational resources available to Texans, like those for diabetics and their families, coordinated by the Texas Diabetes Council.

Medical Arts_Dallas

Postcard of the Medical Arts Building in Dallas, TX. Built in 1923, it was demolished in 1977. The National Library of Medicine has over 4,000 postcards related to medical history online. (Images from the History of Medicine, NLM)

When I was doing graduate research into the history of medicine and public health in Texas, I discovered a number of important local resources. However, a lack of transparency made it difficult to identify and access these resources. This frustration made me curious to learn more. Several medical librarians were kind enough to reply to my informal query about the types of resources they have and the most common reference questions they receive.

Here’s what I found out…

A good rule of thumb for the history of medicine is: it’s kept where it was created. Whether you are looking for old medical journals, biographies of physicians, or historical information on hospitals and medical associations, your best bet is to look for the nearest medical school or public health library.

Major medical centers and universities located in cities like Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, and Galveston are where the majority of historical resources can be found. Extensive collections exist throughout the state in places like the John P. McGovern Historical Collection and Research Center in Houston and the Special Collections at UT Southwestern Medical Center Library in Dallas.

For example, biographical information on physicians is a popular research request. Medical school yearbooks and directories, like Polk’s Medical and Surgical Register of the United States, are important genealogical resources. Biographers and family historians can take advantage of the Texas Physicians Historical Biographical Database online thanks to the library at UT Southwestern. The McGovern Library also has Polk’s Medical Register and Directory digitized and available online.

Archives of past medical journals sit on the shelf at many medical libraries, but assorted issues are online through digital portals like The Medical Heritage Library, Texas Heritage Online, and The Portal to Texas History. A quick PubMed search can help you identify specific articles and dates to help you in your quest for older journal articles on health and medicine in Texas.

TDCedu

“Controlling Diabetes One Day at a Time,” Texas Diabetes Council education packet c.1990s

The history of public health at the state level is often less visible. Current public health topics have historical background that may not be included in up-to-date information and statistics. Unlike books on the subject, many of the primary sources (past reports, public health education material, etc.) tend be accessible only in a handful of places. Within Texas, these include:

  1. the public university library system — Published conference proceedings, reports, and education pamphlets get circulated throughout the library system as well as in state and local archives.
  2. the creating agency, governing body or professional association — Many, like the Texas Diabetes Council and the Texas Medical Association, include publication archives on their websites.
  3. retracing the bureaucratic maze to locate records within the state, county, or city archives — I recommend the TARO database for a search of Texas collections.

For more resources, check out these digital catalogs and online exhibits dedicated to the history of medicine in Texas.

  • The Texas Medical Association’s website Sites for Genealogists and Medical Historians includes helpful links to the history of medicine inside and outside Texas. (Beware, it can be difficult to find from the main page.)
  • UT Southwestern Library’s online exhibit using Omeka, “Medical Milestones in Dallas, 1890-1975,” includes great examples of the history of medical care and education in Dallas, plus an image repository.
  • The Blocker History of Medicine Collections at the UTMB in Galveston’s Moody Medical Library includes The Centennial Oral History Collection, celebrating Texas’ first university medical school.
  • The P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library at UT Health Science Center in San Antonio has special collections for the history of medicine and university archives, including a Digital Archive.
  • Texas Woman’s University’s Woman’s Digital Collection includes photos and oral histories on nursing and TWU’s health science program.

Want to find the history of medicine in another state? The U.S. National Library of Medicine maintains a Directory of History of Medicine Collections by state within the United States and other countries. Also, for another state perspective, check out the newly launched History of Medicine in Oregon website.

Tip of the week: Checklist for walking into an archive

Recently, I was asked to think about my advice to researchers walking into an archive  for the first time.

Typical Study Room, Typing Room #220

A typical study room at the New York Public Library, 1926
(New York Public Library Visual Materials, New York Public Library Flickr photostream)

For anyone unfamiliar with conducting research on site, repositories like libraries and archives are rich with primary sources but can require a little getting used to.

Therefore, I decided the way I think about doing research in an archive, and the best way to describe it to others, is in the form of a brief checklist. There’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (actually 6) things to consider before walking into an archive. To celebrate October as Archives Month, you can read what I came up with, my checklist Early Detection: Preparing to be a History Detective, on the website The Ultimate History Project.

How does it compare with your experience in archives? Hit the comments section above or below and let me know.

October is Archives Month!

October is Archives Month! In celebration of American Archives Month 2012, the Council of State Archivists has compiled a list of special events and activities by state on their website.

Caddo Lake State Park - Plot Plan for Cabins, Roads, and Parking Areas - SP.40.10

Tissue paper with ink and pencil draft of Caddo Lake State Park by draftsman Paul E. Pressler (June 1939). Members of the Civilian Conservation Corp helped build the trails, roads, and cabins at Caddo Lake State Park in Karnack, TX. (Texas State Archives’ Flickr photostream)

Texans will want to check out the PDF of the 2012 Texas Archives Month poster on the Texas State Library and Archives Commission website. This year’s theme is “Preserving Texas’ Civil War Records” to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War — that’s 150 years since the start of the war in 1861. For Civil War and other Texas state records explore their online collections.

Take a look at the Civilian Conservation Corps plans and drawings from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to learn about public works projects in Texas during the Great Depression. Many are on Flickr Commons. A while back, I discovered a stack of old family photos and documents, including my relative’s Certificate of Discharge from the CCC. Part of Company 889, he helped build roads at Caddo Lake State Park. The CCC drawings were a great find that made my relative’s service record come alive (in color, no less). It was no longer just a camp number (Camp SP-1-T), but an actual place that people still enjoy today. For those who don’t happen to have CCC service files hanging around their closet, CCC Enrollee Records can be found at the National Archives at St. Louis. For a list of CCC Camps by state, the Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy organization has a helpful index.

In the midst of pumpkin spice lattes and flu shots, American Archives Month is great way to recognize and celebrate those who preserve the documentary heritage of our communities. The threat of closure for the Georgia State Archives reminds us of the importance of making records available, an essential service to students and teachers, scholars and genealogists, and the public at large. Check out what your local archives has to offer.

Tip of the week: To Google or Not To Google

Card catalog in Central Search Room, July 31, 1942.

Card catalog in the National Archives Central Search Room, 1942 (National Archives Flickr photostream)

Finding Aids & Beyond offers quick tips and easy go-to resources that make doing historical research less stressful and more successful. Do you have a helpful tip to share or a topic to suggest? Hit the comments section above. (This is the internet; No. 2 pencils not required.)

To Google or Not To Google — that is the question when doing historical research online.

The digital card catalog known as Google offers a multitude of primary resources at your finger tips. They come from libraries, archives, and museums. However, you have to know how to search for items online. Unfortunately, there is no rule of thumb for what has and has not been digitized and made available online.

When searching for items online, there are two important factors to consider:

  1. Level of interest to potential viewers and users (higher interest = more likely online)
  2. Date of creation (Newer = more likely online)

In digital history, as in commerce, there is a direct relationship between supply and demand. Digitization requires time and funding to transfer that stack of dusty records into thumbnails for easy viewing on multiple devices. If a newspaper, photo, or video wasn’t born online, there is no guarantee that it has a digital presence. Both the level of general interest and the date of creation can influence the availability of historical resources.

However, there is good news! Digital history and digital humanties are a trending topic, as I mentioned in my previous post about the recent 2012 Digital Frontiers Conference at the University of North Texas in Denton. Whether you’re looking for information on the history of The Great Migration or biographies of women Changing the face of Medicine in the United States, there are a wide breadth of online resources to find.

What a quick Google search cannot replicate is the depth of research required to understand how documents relate to one another. You can still be left clicking page after page of search results, image after image for a particular name or phrase.

Sometimes, digital history projects assist in replicating this process online like the subject guides and other resources included on the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University — a cool website I discovered at the Digital Frontiers conference last week. With the technical, acronym-driven words found in government and military reports as well as changing names of units, political factions, and geographic locals, this website helps the researcher consider the best search words within its collections. There are also links to other Vietnam history resources online.

Online or on-site, a variety of factors influence access to historical records and artifacts. Think about the format, creator, repository. This information can help to explain why different types of materials are available. For instance, public figures might donate personal papers to their alma mater, but their professional papers may be located at collecting agency for the branch of government for which they worked. Government produced reports, documents, and other publications should be available through state and federal repositories like libraries and archives. But, depending on the subject and time period, they may have been destroyed, not retained, or remain restricted from use.

Bottom line: you have to be a “history detective” to find history resources online, but Google and other web browsers certainly can help.

(This post is a revised version of a paper I had the opportunity to present as part of the session “Benefits and Issues Arising from Availability of Online Content” at the recent Digital Frontiers 2012 conference. To learn more about digital history or for online tools and examples of digital history projects, check out the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.)

A Tale of Discovery

From the archives to the (web)page. Read about the “hidden” diabetic and how one study of arthritis led to a greater awareness of diabetes among Native Americans on the website The Ultimate History Project: History Matters. I’ve had the privilege to write for this photo-friendly, historical scholarship website before, but this is my first article as an official staff writer.

Scope and Content

NARA researcher

Research then v. now: National Archives employee William Lind helps researcher, 1972 (National Archives Flickr photostream)

What is a finding aid?

Simply put, a finding aid is a guide, a tool for discovery. More importantly, it is the researcher’s road map.

In some ways, doing research in history has changed dramatically with the digital age. The soundex is obsolete. If you’re lucky, you won’t need a dose of Dramamine to survive the microfilm machine.

In other ways, not much has changed. The caretaker of the books and records still is your best resource. He or she knows those little idiosyncrasies of the materials, where best to look, what types of information might or might not be included. Now as then, the reward is the same. When you find that one piece of paper or image that makes a connection you knew existed but hadn’t yet been able to establish, all the fine dust on your fingertips from turning page, after page, after page suddenly becomes worth it.

But choosing which tools to use when doing historical research is not always clear. Reading a finding aid is a skill, a skill you don’t necessarily learn in class. The first time a librarian showed me a finding aid I thought, “Wow! They’ve already done the hard part for me!”

I still had to learn phrases like “scope and content” to get the most out of research guides. Without this knowledge of how archives work, I found I couldn’t answer those nagging big pictures questions or address silences in the historical record. I had to go beyond what was easily at my fingertips to understand how a particular set of records came to be (a fancy word called provenance). Scope and content gave me a backstage pass to see when and where the materials came together and the type of information available.

In this blog, I plan to explore the discoveries and struggles of historical research. I will look at new and well-worn research tools for the historian’s proverbial “toolbox” and highlight interesting, easily accessible digital resources that I encounter along the way.

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