Order of Multitudes

Where and how do you locate silences in the archive?

The construction of archives, what’s left out or pushed aside, is always in the background of my mind when I select materials for primary source sessions for classes; when I hold consultations for our researchers and Yale community members as they search for material on their own topics (like, why is this archive at this institution? Why isn’t there an archive? How do I find anything on this person or group? What strategies do I take?); when I decide what to acquire, digitize, and make available online; based on how they may “fit,” change, or add to the collection; when I work with donors, who chose to keep, remove or destroy these papers, among other things. All of these decisions were not value free. We don’t need to look for silences in the archive, they are all around us.

Photo by Ula Kuźma on Unsplash

The history of the library or archival collection is instrumental in understanding its silences. At the Medical Historical Library, our collections are the byproducts of the research (and bibliographic) interests of three white, male doctors in the “golden age” of book collecting and the veneration of medical history in the medical profession. Our collection skews towards European, male, white authors and “great” texts of medicine and science, by distinct categories and subjects (inoculation/vaccination, incunables, herbals, etc.). This manifests in over 100 different call number categories in our collection. The collections are fabulous, stunning in many ways, and often surprising, but the silences are also in sharp relief. Race, if represented at all, is usually depicted through clinical or anatomical treatises. Gender is similarly represented, although there are a few female authors in the collection. Sex and gender are medically represented.

Over the years, shaped by cultural and social changes, the collection has expanded to include different types, forms, and genres. Additions include ephemeral collections like tobacco advertising or medically themed comic books, donated instruments and artifacts, a print collection, posters on race and social justice. We have expanded collections on women practitioners, disability, and medical practices, with an increasing emphasis on the visual in medicine, usually through medical photography.  With each addition, we consider “who created this collection?”; “How and why was it put together?”; “Where did it come from?”; and “What is missing or removed?” among other questions. Collection development policy also guides the ways we grow and change our collections, but we are pushing boundaries and thinking creatively about expansion. We look to see how the Medical Historical Library’s collections fit in the Yale Library and museum ecosystem, and we collaborate with our colleagues when a larger collection fits multiple groups (which often happens when purchasing digital collections from vendors) to build connections with the Yale community.


Melissa Grafe

PhD, John. R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University

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Melissa Grafe

Melissa Grafe is the John. R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History at the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library at Yale University. Her many duties include working with students and faculty to assist research and classes, managing the collections for the Medical Historical Library, overseeing major digitization projects, and staging exhibitions in the Library.

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