By Allison Campbell-Jensen
Moving can be disruptive, but it also can be an opportunity to make a fresh start. The Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine has taken advantage of its move into the Health Sciences Education Center to improve protection and access for the collection of books and artifacts. Curator Lois Hendrickson and Assistant Curator Emily Beck also have had to draw on their patience during the transition.
“I probably went to 73 meetings in one year” about measuring and storing their 8,000 artifacts, Hendrickson says. The resulting inventory, however, will make their efforts worthwhile. Many of the artifacts had never been inventoried, so now the Wangensteen has a better idea of all items in the collection. That said, the researchers, teachers, and students who wish to access these items beginning this fall will still need to consult with Beck and Hendrickson about specific items, as they will not be represented in the catalog yet.
The Library’s beginnings
Dr. Owen Wangensteen, head of Surgery at the University from 1930 to 1967, was interested in the history of medicine and found a place in Diehl Hall for a growing collection of books on the topic, alongside an academic history of medicine program.
“Every department had their own library in the 1920s and some of those curators were very good at finding rare things,” Hendrickson says. “As times changed, we were the lucky recipients.” Today, the Wangensteen owns approximately 73,000 print materials dating from 1430 to 1945.
Many of the artifacts came to the Library through Dr. Fredrick J. Wulling, the first Dean of the College of Pharmacy. He collected items during trips to Europe and also asked professionals to send in products for a future pharmacy museum. The pharmacy museum was never built and, other than a couple of items still displayed by the College, the artifacts came to the Wangensteen. Other donations also came in, until the artifacts numbered in the thousands.
“When I arrived, these artifacts were scattered throughout the book stacks and stuffed into a room down the hall,” Hendrickson says.
Protecting fragile books
“For the books themselves, moving to the new space is a terrific way to make them last another 500 years.”
As they had funding, the Wangensteen staff already had been working with Mary Miller, the University Libraries’ Director of Collection Management and Preservation, and her team to create enclosures for several hundred old books a year. With the preparation for the move, the work accelerated as more funding was found.
Every book had to be evaluated and measured for its enclosure.
“Luckily we had that completed before COVID,” Hendrickson says. “The bindery was able to start making those enclosures for us” and in the late summer of 2020, they began to arrive. Books in protective cases are larger than books alone, of course, so the Wangensteen team had to increase their shelf space estimates. Fortunately, they were able to rely on the years of expertise of Libraries Facilities head Bernadette Corley Troge before she retired.
The Wangensteen uses special barcodes printed on special paper. Every item received a new barcode, which was work facilitated by colleagues. The work of taking out the old barcodes and putting in the new ones was carried out carefully over eight weeks by a group of students.
Getting a handle on artifacts
“Artifacts are a really interesting way to connect with people and help them understand that the artifacts and books are synergistic,” Hendrickson says. Looking at a picture of an artifact in a book or reading about how it was used can tell you a lot, but holding it in your hands is completely different. Yet their myriad artifacts had never been inventoried, no less described for storage in a vault.
At first, Hendrickson and Beck were given only three days to provide the architects with a list of all their artifacts and what size they were. Even recruiting Health Sciences Library staff to help, they came up with a rough list that still needed a lot of work.
Then, when they were given more time to complete the task, they hired a person who combined the skills of computer programming with graphic design, and began to get the items precisely measured. That person created an Excel spreadsheet that all could use as a guide to the shelving and handling needs of the artifacts. The architects and the Wangensteen staff began to share the same language. And the designers made progress, creating drawers that would protect the artifacts.
Some items, like glass bottles and models, are fragile and must stand upright; some are tiny, others, large. Each one now has a bar code attached with a string. Using the spreadsheet as a pick list, a staff person places individual items from Diehl Hall into the 2-foot by 3-foot drawers that will be moved to Wangensteen’s space in the new Health Sciences Library.
Among the discoveries: Dental equipment, which might interest students and faculty in the School of Dentistry. Also, “I found some contraceptive things I didn’t know we had,” Hendrickson adds. “A lot of classes ask us to think about contraception in one way or another. It’s a topic of interest for a lot of classes, not just History of Medicine but also Rhetoric and other classes.”
She and Beck are excited about the increased understanding of and access to artifacts. “We want to use them in different ways to connect them with the books in our collection and to attract new audiences.”
The way forward
After the move is complete this summer, a new inventory will be carried out, which will benefit Hendrickson and Beck in their teaching roles, as well as researchers.
“For the books themselves, moving to the new space is a terrific way to make them last another 500 years,” Hendrickson says. “They are in this perfect environment. They are protected in these enclosures. They will serve many future generations of scholars.” If all goes according to plan, the transformation will be complete by fall.