The Academic Health Center History Project documents and preserves the institutional memory and historical events that chronicle the development of health sciences education and research at the University of Minnesota.

Whose woods these are…

Occasionally, it happens that the faculty papers or departmental records I make appointments to review are not the faculty member’s papers or the office’s records at all. Instead they are carefully crafted research collections or the archives of a professional society or another institution.

These collections within collections are often the result of a group or organization being unable to care for its records and as a substitute they are turned over to a well-meaning faculty member or administrator. Once that person retires or moves on to a different university, the records are left behind at an institution where there is no administrative connection and a dwindling provenance to their origin.

These materials can be just a few folders at the end of a box. They can also be multiple filing cabinets that could produce 18-20 linear feet of material.

It is easy to state that these materials fall outside the collecting scope for the project. However, the potential for loss becomes greater as fewer and fewer options become available for their long term storage and management. It highlights the utilitarian versus preservationist ethical dilemma in archival work. We preserve what we can, hopefully, in a sustainable method.

To paraphrase Robert Frost, “Whose records these are I think I know … But I have a mission to keep.”

CENSHARE records

censhare cat Today started with a visit to the CENSHARE (Center to Study Human Animal Relationships and Environments) office to discuss their twenty-five plus years worth of records. The center began as a joint venture between the School of Public Health and the College of Veterinary Medicine. It was an early advocate for animal assisted therapy and promoted companion animals as a source of well-being in assisted care facilities. Today it acts as a think tank and granting agency for interdisciplinary studies of human-animal relations.

It is a small office run by a director and a loyal group of volunteers. The primary source of income for CENSHARE has been private contributions and proceeds from the Gentle Leader® head collar for dogs developed by Ruth Foster and Dr. Robert K. Anderson, two founding members of the center.

The center is moving at the end of the year and wanted to make a plan for their records prior to the move.

Losing memory

I’ve often commented that archival work is a morbid profession. I think this every time I see work study students combing the obituaries for a notice to close out a clippings file or contact information for the next of kin as a collection lead.

Yet, there is another type of loss we deal with from time to time and it is a less than funny matter. Even though a person may not be nearing the end of their life, they may be nearing the end of their memory. Memory loss in a donor can be a confusing and difficult area for the archivist to navigate. Repeating conversations during each contact while knowing the donor is becoming less aware of the ultimate purpose of the discussion is an area we are not equipped through our training to handle. It also becomes an ethical issue. The archivist needs to be able to determine when a donor is no longer able to consent to the depositing of their materials and whether or not we should proceed with the acquisition until ownership and transfer issues are resolved.

I’d suggest we need to look to the literature on aging in the medical and social work fields to understand how we can best react to the changing needs of those we are trying to document.

Faculty paper guidelines

Apparently, I’m not the only one who finds it difficult to accurately communicate to faculty what the archives would be interested in collecting from their personal papers.

The archivist at Harvard University recently published a series of guidelines to better assist the faculty in organizing and transferring their papers to the archives. It explains how to differentiate between personal and professional materials from university records, provides brief guidelines on what information may be considered confidential due to federal regulations, and gives helpful hints on ways to organize the material.

Although it is tailor made for Harvard’s academic community, the guidelines provide a great starting point for any university archives and can be used as a way to help shape a conversation with potential faculty donors.

Just short of dumpster diving

Last Friday I got word via a patron at University Archives that a prominent former professor and head of the Department of Surgery and Radiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine was moving out of his home and that several items of interest might be in danger of being discarded. The professor, now in his 90s, was a previous president of the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association and a prominent veterinary surgeon who was often consulted for advice both locally and abroad.

I was able to leave a message with the family, but it was late on a Friday afternoon and the only number I had was a work number. The following Monday, a member of the family returned my call and said that they had saved a few items of interest, but unfortunately, a bulk of material had already been disposed of. They offered to send me what they had and would continue to keep an eye out for any other related materials. I thanked them and crossed my fingers for the possibility of more material.

The packages arrived today and sure enough, it was exactly what I thought it would be. A small (two folders) snapshot of his career at the University and his international consulting. It is small, but rich. Any further additions the family can provide will be beneficial, but sometimes we have to come to terms with being just a little too late at getting between the box and the dumpster.