The P&S Journal: Spring 1998, Vol.18, No.2
A Day in Special Collections
In Good Hands
Although he says he’s never alphabetized the canned goods in his kitchen cabinets, Mr. Novak admits that he’s a bit of an organization enthusiast. An archivist, he says, is not necessarily an expert in any one field, but rather a generalist who has been trained in archival principles. “It’s important to have a feel for what scholars do and what kind of papers they find useful.” Mr. Novak, like many archivists, has an undergraduate degree in history and a master’s degree in history and archival administration. Before his stint at Juilliard, he was the assistant archivist at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. Mr. Vietrogoski has a degree in English, completed graduate work in American studies, and has a master’s degree in library science.
Whereas librarians are experts at cataloging, archivists must also have a keen sense of knowing which records to save and how to physically preserve them. “There’s a lot of physical control here,” says Mr. Novak, “as far as understanding how to keep things orderly in boxes and protected from the effects of the environment.” Most paper produced in the past 100 years tends to become extremely brittle in time so is best kept in protective acid-free boxes. Oddly enough, the oldest books—some from as early as the 16th century—are often in the best shape. Until the mid-19th century, paper was made of linen or cotton—often old rags—which made very strong paper. Today and for the past century, however, paper has been made of wood pulp, which tends to degrade easily when exposed to air and normal humidity. So, in many cases, the older the document, the better quality the paper, meaning it may last better than its younger counterpart.
The Health Sciences archives and special collections have only existed in their current home since the early 1980s. Before the Hammer Health Sciences building was completed in 1976, all special collections were housed in the Butler Library on the Morningside campus. “Around 1985 the first full-time librarian for special collections was hired here,” says Mr. Novak. “But this was seen as a rare book collection, not an archive, so most attention was paid to the books.” That explains the disarray of papers and records that Mr. Novak hopes one day will be organized in such a way that scholars and Columbia-Presbyterian administrators can easily access the materials that he believes hold important information for researchers.
“It’s a magnificent collection of materials,” says Dr. David Rosner, professor of public health and co-director of Columbia’s new graduate program in the history of public health and medicine. The down side, however, is that not enough space exists for everything currently in the collection or for acquisitions Dr. Rosner would like to see the library make. “Columbia has wonderful contacts with wonderful people who have fascinating papers. Unless they’re guaranteed that their papers will be taken care of, they may not donate them,” he says. “Without space, lots of the medical and social history of New York City will be lost forever.” Dr. Rosner has studied part of the collection for his own historical research and hopes the students in the new program will have opportunities to use the materials. “I’m a proponent of improving the space because we’d like to make use of this archive. It’s clear that Steve is concerned about the archives and is desperately trying to improve the area.”
Dr. Molholt explains that a primary goal of hers is to promote awareness and use of these materials by researchers. “We have a wealth of information about the history of medicine, in particular in the United States, since much of the innovation and parsing out of disciplines first occurred here at P&S,” she says. “The archive is distinguished and rich in content. It has not been as well known as the rare book collection because it has not been as accessible. An archive, by definition, contains unique materials and reflects the organization of the institution that created it. The challenge is to preserve the essence of the institution while applying standards for retention, organization, and use of the materials. This can be a difficult balance to maintain.”