Home Artifacts Documenting the past, enriching the future – @theU

Documenting the past, enriching the future – @theU


This piece originally appeared on the Good Notes blog.

One of my favorite collections at Eccles Health Sciences Library is the History of Health Sciences collection. Books, meeting minutes from the 1950s, oral histories dating back to the 1970s-1980s, medical equipment, photographs, a time capsule from the 1980s, scrapbooks, clothing, an iron lung, and more artifacts paint a fascinating picture of the development of health sciences over the decades.

The collection has been accumulating for over 50 years. We have received amazing artifacts from former faculty members and former students. Recently a visitor came to the library with her mother’s woolen nursing cape from the 1950s, it’s just amazing!

But, beyond conversation pieces and outdated medical equipment, the History of Health Sciences collection shows the evolution of medicine. It reminds us of how far we’ve come. It also provides important context for the future of the University of Utah Health.

Fundraising in action

At the library, the preservation of history is one of our greatest concerns.

Earlier this year, one of the oldest buildings on campus, the Medical Research and Education Building (MREB)– was demolished as part of an ongoing campus transformation project. Another important historical monument, Building 521which houses the university’s medical school, will soon be demolished to make way for the new Spencer Fox Eccles Medical School.

Before a historic building is demolished, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) requires complete documentation. This includes researching the history of the building, cataloging all historic artifacts housed in the building, salvaging all artifacts prior to demolition, and submitting a report. This is a colossal task made possible by the History of Health Sciences collection.

Instead of hiring an outside contractor to complete the documentation for both buildings, graduate student Keely Mruk took on the projects. Mruk has since completed his Master of Arts in United States History at the University of Utah and is continuing his studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Most of Mruk’s research for the documentation project came from the Health Sciences History Collection, which allowed him to create a strong story that met the requirements of the SHPO. The project has also become its own resource, ensuring that nothing of value is lost as we move forward.

The History of Health Sciences collection also provides an opportunity to show how things have stayed the same over the years and how we still face some of the same issues as past generations. There’s a lot more to collecting artifacts than just doing it for story’s sake. Rather, it is about how the past can impact what we do today.

Some medical tools, like scalpels, are much the same as they were many years ago. Research conducted using materials from our collection can sometimes shed light on what is happening now. A good example is our digital polio exhibition, which documents the polio vaccine and the response to it. Reflecting on this moment in history can help us learn from what we have done in the past to help people accept a life-changing vaccine.

A resource for all

As important as our collection is, it is not as visible as it could be. That’s something we’re working on on the University of Utah campus: making sure all of our students, faculty, and staff know about the collection so they can benefit from it.

Beyond campus, we are also increasing visibility and access by putting our collections online. Currently, many of our digital library collections are accessible by anyone, anywhere through our website. As we grow our digital presence, we are also creating guides for our collections, making them easier to find and use.

The future of collecting

We have already learned a great deal from the countless books, photographs and other artifacts in the History of Health Sciences collection. However, we know we can learn even more by continuing to research our incredible collection.

We invite you all to come visit the Eccles Health Sciences Library. For those at other institutions, consider visiting your own medical library. The more we learn about our rich history, the brighter our future can be.