The Bourn identity: Preserving the school's legacy
If history is a story, then the School of Medicine has a tale to tell of genius, failure and progress emerging over the last century. And Drew Bourn, the archivist at Lane Medical Library, holds the keys to this story.
"Call me the 'Lone Arranger,'" said Bourn. "It's a term we [archivists] jokingly use when there's just one person running the shop."
Bourn, hired last year to be the medical school's first full-time professional archivist, oversees and arranges Lane Medical Library's considerable collection of historical material largely on his own, with just a part-time assistant and occasional student workers.
"I'm helping to capture the medical school's ongoing history and, more broadly, to capture the history of medicine itself," Bourn said. Since Stanford had the first medical school in the western United States, it has an important place in the country's history of medical practice.
It's a tricky business, because Bourn has to project ahead to the future and imagine what scholars and Stanford staff might be interested in. "You can look at what's been useful in the past, but that's not always a great guarantee for what will be useful in the future," Bourn said. "It's like having a crystal ball that doesn't always work."
To guide their choices, archivists establish an appraisal policy aimed at building a collection representative of an institution's or discipline's history. This is difficult, said Bourn, because no matter how careful an archivist is in attempting to capture that history, something has to get excluded. He has also worked closely with university archivist Margaret Kimball in developing the medical school's archives.
Lane Medical Library holds four different kinds of archival collections: institutional records from the medical school, personal papers from people affiliated with the school, a rare book collection dating back to the 13th century (including several written in Arabic script) and artifacts that are primarily historical medical instruments.
The archives contain such treasures as an original edition of Vesalius' classic 1543 work, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, which changed the course of Western medical thinking and education. The collections also hold 19th-century tonsillectomy guillotines, and a suture kit from the 1890s disguised as a notepad—to name just a few of its treasures. Bourn wants to make sure anyone looking for such gems knows where to find them.
Maintaining these collections according to professional archive standards requires certain skills, Bourn said. For example, what does he do if a researcher on the verge of retirement shows up to donate 50 boxes of personal papers, usually completely disorganized?
"Organization and access tools are necessary so other researchers don't have to paw through all that material in search of what they need. It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack," he explained. "You have to know how to arrange things physically, describe them, make the descriptions available online…these are skills that archivists have, but not necessarily librarians."
When sifting through such stacks of donated "stuff" and deciding what should be archived, Bourn considers two key questions. First, are these materials unique? In other words, he's more interested in "unpublished things—the one copy you can't find anywhere else," he said, than journal article reprints. Second, do these materials have user value?
People often misunderstand the word "archives," Bourn noted, believing that means holding on to everything forever.
"The archives are not the magic version of Grandma's attic where everything old goes to die," he emphasized. "This is not a warehouse where we just keep old things. We can't do that. There'll never be enough space or people to take care of it all."
Bourn's job isn't even a year old; he came to Stanford in July 2007, after working as an archivist at Harvard Medical School's Center for the History of Medicine. His recent accomplishments included adding the priceless David L. Bassett medical image collection to the archives, as well as materials from the personal papers of pioneering vision researcher Denis Baylor, MD.
Heidi Heilemann, the library's acting director and the person who recruited Bourn, said that as the library goes digital, it's perfect timing for having an archivist on board. With the medical school and both hospitals undergoing expansion, Bourn's role will be critical in ensuring that seminal documents and artifacts are archived.
As if running this one-man show isn't enough, Bourn spends evenings and weekends working on his PhD dissertation on early San Francisco religious history, for his doctoral program at UC-Santa Barbara. He also holds two master's degrees, the first in world religions from Harvard, and the second in archives management from Simmons College in Boston.
"I was preparing to complete my PhD and go on to teaching and scholarship in American history," Bourn said, "but the job market for academics is abysmal." Because he had so enjoyed using archives in the course of his research, he decided to pursue a career as an archivist instead.
Now he's so enamored of his job at Stanford that, even when he's earned his PhD, he plans on being an archivist first and a scholar second.
Bourn said he's having a great time developing the archival collections and services. He offers assistance to people with little or no background in doing historical research, and is also working to improve the archives' accessibility to off-site users.
"I love working with historical evidence—the raw material historians use to formulate their narratives," Bourn said. "There's a lot of work involved in knowing how to collect and take care of it and make it available to people, which I find fascinating."
After all, he reckons that historians and archivists are really two sides of the same coin. "Archivists collect and take care of certain parts of historical evidence; historians come along, look at what's available and say, 'I'm going to tell you a story, based on this evidence, about what happened,'" Bourn said.
He is also keen to raise the profile of the medical school's archives.
"Not everyone knows there's an archives section at Lane Medical Library, let alone an archivist," he noted. "I'd like for more students and those practicing medicine at Stanford to know of this place, so when they leave or retire, they consider donating their personal papers. It'll help us get a more representative picture of who's been doing what here."
Interested in donating materials? Contact Bourn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alissa Poh is a science-writing intern in the Office of Communication & Public Affairs at the School of Medicine.