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Using and Accessing Primary Sources

BLHD Enrichment Week: Dig into Archives

What can evidence from the past tell us about health, medicine, and society today? Historical examples like the 1918-19 influenza pandemic have come back into the limelight as a way to help us understand the present. Understanding the historical and social context of health sciences can inform and enrich your scholarship and clinical practice.

This interactive session will introduce you to historical sources in archives, show you how to find them, and offer tips on how to incorporate these primary historical sources into your research.

General tips: For topics that are new to you, start with a broad overview from reliable secondary sources. Note questions that the sources raise, and note important names (people, places, institutions) and keywords that could be useful in searching. From there, dig deeper by looking for primary sources.

See below for selected examples from the history of vaccines and of mental health care.

History of Vaccines

Digital secondary sources

Broad overviews
In-depth introduction and timeline

Digital primary sources (global collections)

  • Narrow results by the facets (selections) at left
  • Consider other words you can search (for example, the name of a disease, like "smallpox")

Digital primary sources (OHSU collections)

A secondary source can point you toward a primary source. Example:

History of Mental Health Care

An example of sources from a recent blog post, Connecting OHSU Library Resources with “Care and Custody: Past Responses to Mental Health”

Digital secondary source (U.S.)

Key names and events (U.S.)

  • Dorothea Dix: Teacher and advocate who agitated for the creation of asylums to keep people with mental illness out of poor farms, prisons and jails.
  • Elizabeth Packard: Campaigned against involuntary confinement in the nineteenth century, pointing out how unequally such laws could be applied.
  • Photograph of President John F. Kennedy signing the Community Mental Health Act in 1963: In addition to closing inpatient institutions, advocates and policymakers in the 1950s–1970s proposed robust networks of community behavioral health centers and resources, so that people could access necessary services while remaining in the community.

Digital primary sources (U.S.)

Digital secondary sources (OHSU and Oregon)

Digital primary sources (OHSU and Oregon)

  • Series of reports from the Oregon State Insane Asylum
    Offer a window into the social construction of mental illness as it has changed over time; the “forms of disease” identified for the 384 patients admitted during a two-year period included “idiocy,” “imbecility,” “acute/general melancholia,” and “epileptic insanity” (epilepsy was considered a “neurotic” disorder related to insanity in this era).
  • State Psychiatric Service for Rural Courts
    In the 1941 document, a University of Oregon Medical School professor addresses judges with an aim of explaining the benefits of clinical treatment, rather than confinement, for “juvenile offenders.”
  • Release date: A Relational Perspective on Transition from Prison,” by Ariana Cooley and Samantha Ross
    To connect the past to the present, you may want to expand beyond HC&A in Digital Collections. The contemporary clinical issues described in this report are easier to put into context with an understanding from the historical evidence.