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Jan 05 2015

Think Like a Veterinarian…

By Rachel Jacobson and Rose Buchanan, Library Associates at the Special Collections Research Center

As archivists, our primary goal is to make historical records accessible to researchers and the general public. Whether we are selecting a collection for long-term retention or writing a collection description, we must remember that different people will use collections in different ways and for different purposes. Part of our job is to think like a researcher: to envision how researchers might use collections, and to arrange and describe collections in ways that make sense for those audiences.

Dr. Richard Montali with a Burmese Python, circa 1982

At times, thinking like a researcher is easier said than done. For example, many of us have a background in the humanities, but are often responsible for arranging scientific collections. In such circumstances, we can find it difficult to decipher which topics or materials might spark the interest of or be important to someone from a different discipline. By conducting additional research about the donor or creator of a collection, and consulting with people knowledgeable about the topic or materials, however, we can learn to “think like a veterinarian.”

We are currently processing a zoological health collection for the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC). The Richard Montali Papers is a collection that focuses on a veterinary pathologist, Dr. Richard Montali. He was an active member of many veterinary and zoological organizations, and was formerly the chief pathologist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C.; later, he served on the faculty at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Montali’s papers are of particular interest to students and faculty at N.C. State’s College of Veterinary Medicine because they contain research on infectious diseases in elephants, giant pandas, and New World primates, among others.

Dr. Richard Montali with a Tawny Frogmouth, 2004

With limited background knowledge about veterinary medicine or pathology, we faced a significant challenge in making Montali’s papers accessible to interested faculty and students. We had to ask ourselves a number of questions from the perspective of these potential researchers. Ultimately, it became clear that the most helpful way to organize the collection would be by animal or disease type and by zoological, wildlife, or veterinary organization or publication. Even this decision, which may seem simple enough, presented some problems when putting the collection guide together. For example, when we saw a name such as the tawny frogmouth, it was tempting to place documents about this animal with the amphibians. However, we discovered (with a little help from Google) that the tawny frogmouth is not actually a brown frog, but a brown nocturnal bird from Australia. Montali’s research on this creature would fit intellectually with other avian records, not with amphibian records.

Another challenging task came when we were confronted with medical slides, materials not commonly encountered in the SCRC. For archivists without a scientific background, the slides were difficult to interpret, particularly when they did not have accompanying documentation. For instance, was it possible to tell from which animal the slides simply labeled, “Ovary” or “Liver,” came? Perhaps not for an archivist just delving into veterinary records for the first time, but a veterinarian or a DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) student will see these slides differently and the slides could prove to be invaluable to their research.

Therefore, from the earliest processing decision to the final arrangement and description, we had to determine the best way to organize Montali’s papers and appropriately add the slides to the finding aid. In the course of our work, we tried to think like veterinary researchers, anticipate researchers’ needs, and conduct a little of our own research in the process. The results of our efforts will appear in a new collection guide to be published on the web this month.

Please contact the Special Collections Research Center for more information on the Richard Montali Papers. Please also visit the SCRC’s website for more information on our zoological health collecting initiative.