Volunteer Report: The Papers of Robert Langley Porter

This is a guest post by Seth Cotterell, UCSF Archives Volunteer.

As a UCSF Archives volunteer, I get to play an important supporting role in achieving our mission to identify and provide access to rare and unique material and support research and teaching of the health sciences, medical humanities, and the history of UCSF. Toward that end I have been updating old records and creating new ones that will result in making new, detailed finding aids for collections available online to researchers soon. You’ll have to come back for my next guest blog post to hear the details of that project, though. Today I thought I’d share with you a sneak peek at one of those collections.

If you’re familiar with the history of UCSF you’ve probably heard of Robert Langley Porter. Dr. Porter was a pediatrician and later served as dean of the UC School of Medicine from 1927-1940. He may be best known for spearheading the creation of the Langley Porter Institute, today called the Langley Porter Psychiatric Hospital and Clinics, which receives more than 20,000 visits per year. Of course, this is the kind of information you can get from any web search. What I love about archival research, what you don’t find anywhere else, is the added insight. It’s the glimpse into the mind of the creator, the display of personality, and the richness of character captured in archival collections. For example, did you know that Dr. Porter was also a poet, sometimes writing verses on the back of Office of the Dean letterhead? This collection includes a love sonnet, a poem about potatoes, and this one which he apparently wrote in the bath!

Poem by Robert Langley Porter, 1924. Porter papers, MSS 77-11. Carton 1, folder 6.

Research is about so much more than simply gathering and reporting data points. Where else but in an archival collection could you expect to find a historical figure’s musings on the great questions, like what is life and what separates human beings from animals and microscopic organisms, next to guidelines for managing the “behavior abnormalities of children,” alongside the outline for an opera he wrote starring a Pan-like deity symbolizing the antithesis of materialism and destruction of nature? Spoiler alert: all this and more can be found in just the miscellaneous writings folders of this collection. And I, for one, would love to know in what context he used these jokes:

From miscellaneous writings (1), Porter papers, MSS 77-11. Carton 1, folder 14.

One of the most interesting items in the collection for me is a scrapbook that may have been given to Porter on the occasion of his retirement. Included are heartfelt and humorous well wishes from students and colleagues that give us an idea of the impact he had on those around him, not just as a highly respected professional in his field, but as a genuine human being.

Scrapbook, Porter papers, MSS 77-1. Oversize folder 1.

I look forward to continuing to work with our fascinating collections and to improving accessibility by publishing a number of new finding aids in the very near future for your viewing pleasure.

Volunteer Report: Working on the AIDS History Project

This is a guest post by Edith Martinez, UCSF Archives Volunteer.

Volunteering at the UCSF Archives has been a great learning experience. I have been able to help with the NHPRC grant project, Evolution of San Francisco’s Response to a Public Health Crisis: Providing Access to New AIDS History Collectionsan expansion of the AIDS History Project.

AIDS National Conference booklet, 1987. ATN records, MSS 94-28.

I have specifically been working on material from AIDS Treatment News, a biweekly newsletter started by John James in 1986 that reports on experimental and conventional treatments for HIV/AIDS and related conditions. ATN articles are based on information that James gathered from meetings, conferences, interviews, publications, and correspondence.

VIIIth International Conference on AIDS in Africa and VIIIth African Conference on Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 1993. ATN records, MSS 94-28.

Working on this collection I realized that it is a lot of work organizing and processing. I’ve also learned more about the history of AIDS and found some really interesting items that I thought were fascinating. John James attended many conferences and saved many of the booklets from these conferences. The booklets for the VIIIth International Conference on AIDS in Africa and the AIDS National Conference in San Francisco are just some examples. Looking through these booklets and reading about the talks and workshops listed in each, one can see how AIDS prevention and treatment has progressed and changed over the years. It’s a true learning experience, and working on this collection has really helped me better understand AIDS history and archival work.

Archiving and the Frontier

This is a guest post by Phoebe Jones, UCSF Archives and Special Collections Volunteer.

In the couple of months that I have volunteered with the Archives and Special Collections, I have had the opportunity to survey the Committee on Arts and Lectures collection (AR 2015-17). From 1957-1968 UCSF’s Committee on Arts and Lectures organized and facilitated lectures, art exhibitions, and musical events for the UCSF community. This collection is comprised of audiovisual components, photographs, programs, announcements and books upon books of lecture transcripts.

Program for the 1971 Winter Quarter evening cultural classes. Note tuition prices for these classes ranged from $4.00-$24.00. AR 2015-17.

Program for the 1971 Winter Quarter evening cultural classes. Note tuition prices for these classes ranged from $4.00-$24.00. AR 2015-17.

One lecture series in this collection is titled, “Noon Topics.” For this series, the Committee would bring in a speaker about every week to address the community. Various speakers over the decade included Ansel Adams, Barnaby Conrad, and Arthur Russell Moore. Lecture topics ranged from Chinese philosophy to jazz music, from Italian culture to humankind’s existential significance.

The Noon Topics Fall 1966 program. Ansel Adams opened the season. Unfortunately his lecture was not transcribed. AR 2015-17.

The Noon Topics Fall 1966 program. Ansel Adams opened the season. Unfortunately his lecture was not transcribed. AR 2015-17.

The Noon Topics program of events of 1960 captures the intention behind establishing this lecture series:

“‘Noon Topics’ are designed to promote an interest in Human Ecology: the science of man in an ever-changing environment which is influenced by the geography, sociologic structure, and the biologic species therein. These lectures present “frontier thinking” in many fields of science, philosophy, literature, and human affairs- areas which influence directly or indirectly, the physical and psychological environment and the well-being of man.”

What I love most about this mission statement is the phrase, “frontier thinking.” I find the notion that each lecture was in some way revelatory of the great un-thought and unknown, humbling. But here we are in 2015 reading these transcripts and the question, “have we yet forged this lecturer’s frontier,” remains.

I tend to think that it is too easy to frame ideas and concepts from the past as mere stepping stones to “true” advancement or achievement; “thank goodness person x discovered y or else we would never have later produced z.” While this line of thought is not necessarily patronizing- it acknowledges the significance of such a piece in the grander puzzle- it ultimately strips the initial discovery of its frontier quality.

“Frontier” suggests a future that is beyond what has been revealed but not beyond the hope and potential of it one day being unveiled. To describe something as “frontier” suggests an element of wonder, movement and the unexpected. Therefore, “frontier thinking” may be the most apt term for the Noon Topics’ celebration of the present discoveries in Human Ecology and humanity’s continued pursuit of the “greater.”

The Spring Quarter 1967 Noon Topics Program title page. AR 2015-17.

The Spring Quarter 1967 Noon Topics Program title page. AR 2015-17.

As an individual new to the world of archiving, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to honor the past as a composite of the present and the future.  How can I respect the past (whether in the form of an individual’s life, an ideology, even an event preserved in a newspaper headline) for both what it was at that moment in time and what it will be or can be?

On the first day of volunteering at the archives I could not help but wonder, how do we decide what is worth keeping around? It did not take me long to realize that the act of archiving is an active and constant mediation of the past, present, and future. In working through this collection and thinking about its concept of “Frontier,” it seems that we can only begin to look at a lecture transcript and make a holistic interpretation of its worth if we first consider the complex contexts in which it developed and evolved.