On my way to the archives -- but what am I talking about?

[This post is part of my series A Catalog of (Medical) Curiosity, which I blog about the book I'm writing. For more info, here's the introductory post.]

I spend a lot of my time and internet life in circles where making an archival research visit somewhere is not noteworthy, but many of my readers either haven't visited an archives since college, or have never done it, so I thought I should blog about the process. I'm not sure what your impressions of archives are -- it seems like in pop culture you get a lot of "research in the dusty basement of a library" scenes that aren't specifically archives scenes but sort of stand in for them.

A screenshot from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with two high schoolers at a table piled high with dusty old books.
What's an archives?
Archives are divisions within museums, libraries or within organizations large enough to generate a lot of records over the years (governments, large companies, universities, etc). They hold historical records, usually unpublished papers like letters, often other two-dimensional works like photographs, and sometimes other forms of media (audio and video recordings), three-dimensional historical artifacts, or digital media. They can be an institution's own records, or archival special collections which are put together the way museum collections are put together, as an assemblage of items donated (or sometimes purchased) around a specific set of themes or collecting goals. I'm visiting the UC San Francisco archives, which has a historical artifact I'm interested in, a Lister sprayer. Lister was one of the founders of antiseptic practices in surgery and in medicine more generally. The apparatus was used to spray carbolic acid or another heavy-duty early disinfectant on surgical tools and bandages. He wasn't involved in the making of Listerine, but it's named after him. They also have the papers of the doctor who donated this sprayer to their archives.

Why am I visiting an archives?
I haven't had to go in person to many archives so far in the course of research for Exploring Healthcare through 50 Historic Treasures. The majority of time, when I need a historical primary source, it's a newspaper or journal article, and a great number of periodicals are digitized and available to anyone or through a database that my local library subscribes to. Thank you, internet age! However, this is only true because this book is such a broad survey. If I were doing historical research that went into more depth on one or a few topics, I'd definitely need to spend more time with materials that haven't been digitized. Scanning documents and digitizing all of the information that makes them useful, like author, date, etc., (called metadata) is a time-consuming process. Most institutions have only digitized a fragment of their collections, and never plan to digitize everything.

In this case, I'm going partly because I'll be in town and it's fun -- it's always more satisfying to see something I'm writing about in person. The other reason to go is that I'm hoping to find an anecdote  or some additional context about this specific sprayer and the person who donated it to the archives. These small details can make the difference between writing about the object in the abstract, and writing about this particular object.

What's the process?
I had started out by emailing the archivist to ask what information, if any, they had on this sprayer, and she pointed me in the direction of the donor's papers. Depending on the type of research and what the library had online, I might have started by searching the library catalog, instead. Unlike a regular library, visitors can't just go to the shelves for most of the materials in archives. Someone who works there retrieves the things you request from closed storage. That's for safety, since many of the items are one of a kind, but it's also because many archives don't store everything on-site, so the staff has to order things.

I decided what to request by looking at the finding aid for doctor's papers. Most archival holdings are described by a finding aid, which is sort of a table of contents for a set of boxes or folders. Especially with large collections, a good finding aid can help the researcher pinpoint what they need. If it's particularly detailed, you can often figure out which specific boxes or folders to request, although that didn't turn out to be the case for me, and there were only three boxes, so I requested all of them.

Most archives visits are by appointment only. My appointment is next week, so I'll blog again after I've visited.