Accessing Archives Ain’t Annoying

If you were doing a project on the history of medicine, try to Google the phrase “history of medicine.” You will find about 340,000,000 pages relating to that search. Rather than sifting through all of those pages aimlessly, take a look at an archive. Archivists make an archive's storage of primary resources more accessible to the public by crafting extensive previews to the documents on file.

I was exposed to an archive when I visited the Dittrick Medical History Center. There, I learned from the curator, James Edmonson, and the archivist, Jennifer Nieves, about the archive they work with. Originally, the Dittrick Medical History Center began as a place where the records of the Cleveland Medical Library Association (CMLA) and its Board of Trustees were kept. Later, it expanded to include records from medical societies including the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA), healthcare institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic and papers from individual physicians. Nieves noted that there is not a lot of room left to keep the materials nowadays. She’s right. Take a look at the Allen Memorial Library where the archives are held:


It’s not a large building by any means, especially considering that there is an auditorium inside it.

With the sheer volume of primary resources, it is important for the archivists to be able to categorize the information so that it is easily accessible for anyone who wishes to access these resources. Nieves called their form of categorizing “finding aids.” These finding aids are applied each collection of primary resources donated by a person or an organization. First, an introduction to the collection is written by the archivists, which reveals the donor of the material as well as a brief summary of what is in the collection. A more detailed biographical note is written next to give more background information on the collection. Then, an archivist writes a more detailed description about the collection in the scope and content note. People can get better access to a collection through the container listing, which itemizes each primary resource. Finally, a description of series gives even more detail about each item in the collection. This format creates an extensive preview of the primary resources.

All of these aspects of finding aids give a person a better preview of the primary sources than a Google search can offer. For example, take a look at the finding aids at Duke University’s Library. While these finding aids may be in a different format, they offer an in depth preview of the primary resources. If we take a look at the Google search of “history of medicine,” the first website that comes up, which happens to be from National Institute of Health (NIH), has a brief description: “Extensive collection of material. Open to the public.” How extensive is this NIH website? What sources does this information come from? Instead, you could go look through some finding aids at an archive. This information would give you much more detail without even having to look at primary resources. So before you go and wander aimlessly through Google, check out an archive. You might find something intriguing that you would have never expected.


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