Preserving Nursing's Historic Treasures

A guide for nursing organizations, nurses, their families and friends, on documenting the profession of nursing in New York State

The profession of nursing in New York State has an extraordinarily rich and proud heritage. Materials documenting this heritage are nursing's historical treasures – indispensable to the profession's and public's understanding of nursing and its unique contribution to society.

Over the years, some individual nurses and professional organizations and institutions have taken care to preserve their records and materials. Too many, however, while cherishing the history of the profession at large, have been unaware of the importance of their own individual history, and the materials which reflect their own experiences and contributions. Letters, diaries, lecture notes, minutes and administrative records, statistical reports, curriculum plans, photographs, uniforms, and artifacts—all are invaluable information sources. Materials such as these are the windows to the profession and the way its members serve society. 

Increasingly, the history of nursing is being studied by historians, sociologists, women's studies scholars, economists, and health policy planners. More nurses themselves are engaging in historical research, and as a result are experiencing intense pride in their profession and finding new hope for its future.  

This web page is addressed to individual nurses, their families and friends, and to institutions, organizations, and agencies involved in the profession's development and work. Its aim is to encourage and assist in the identification and preservation of their records and materials – important additions to nursing's historical treasures.

WHAT TO SAVE?

Personal Papers  

Nurses, their families and friends, are often surprised by the range of materials that aid scholars in their research. Materials—published or unpublished—written by nurses themselves are of primary interest. Writings on professional issues and experiences are of obvious value, but materials which document the social, political, and religious context of nurses' professional lives are also important and interesting- Correspondence, diaries, essays, speeches, articles, memoirs, and the like which describe nurses' education, training, and practice environment are all valuable source materials. Written materials and notes prepared for oral presentations (speeches, classroom lectures, and continuing education workshops and seminars) are of particular value, as they document what was taught more clearly than a skeletal course outline, syllabus, or title of a speech. Lecture notes used by nursing educators and class notes made by nursing students may be the only documentation of what actually occurred in the classroom. Letters and diaries may document relationships (between student and teacher, for example) and the influence of these relationships. 

Organizational Records

Records which document the life of a school of nursing, professional group, or agency are also important source materials on the history of the profession, and of individual nurses. Alumnae associations,  hospitals,  visiting  nurse associations, and governmental agencies are a few examples of organizations whose records are of value. Some agencies have a legal mandate to preserve certain types of records. Other agency records may not need to be preserved for legal purposes, but have historical value. In addition to the types of materials discussed in the previous section, minutes and other meeting records, policies, procedures, and the like are all valuable source materials. Published or unpublished organizational overviews and histories are of particular interest.

Other Materials

Visual materials often convey information that cannot be captured by the written word, and are of particular interest. Photographs of nurses, their work and educational environment, sketches and drawings of procedures, movies and video tapes of significant events are examples of visual materials worth preserving.

Books, particularly textbooks, are not usually retained by an archive. Notable exceptions are all nursing books published before 1945, autographed books, and books with significant marginal annotations. While the books themselves may not be accepted as part of a collection of an individual's papers, a list of books owned is a valuable component of any collection. Ephemeral publications such as conference proceedings, workshop materials, and other near-print materials should be retained, for they are usually of historical interest and are rarely preserved.

WHERE TO SAVE?

The unstable environments of attics and cellars have destroyed countless valuable historical documents and materials. Individuals and organizations with collections of materials are urged to discuss their potential historical value with a professional archivist. For an individual nurse, it is usually best for materials to be retained at the institution with which the nurse was most closely associated, if it has an archives program. Archives organize, preserve, and describe materials, and it is to these archives that scholars go in search of materials for their research. Many schools of nursing and work places (colleges and universities, hospitals, visiting nurses associations, and others) have established archives programs, and it is usually recommended that organizational records be preserved within the institution in these cases. The Foundation's Bellevue Alumnae Center for Nursing History archives program may accept collections when a more appropriate repository cannot be identified.

WHAT NEXT?

The Foundation of the New York State Nurses Association would like to hear from individual nurses, friends or families of nurses, and organizations  possessing materials that might help document the nursing profession. Our trained staff can help determine how these   materials could contribute to our understanding of the nursing profession. We are interested in all materials which document nursing in New York State. Information on the types of materials, relevant subjects documented, location of materials, and their availability to qualified researchers is being collected and maintained at the Foundation's Bellevue Alumnae Center for Nursing History, for use by scholars.
 
Foundation staff are available to provide information on:

  • locating an appropriate archives to permanently preserve your materials;
  • developing a formal archives program for your organization;
  • preserving and safeguarding materials you wish to retain;
  • assessing the historic value of specific materials;
  • determining which materials should be retained, and which can be discarded.

For further information, contact the Foundation's archivist at ghutchinson@foundationnysnurses.org or (518) 456-7858 x24. 

To learn more about conservation and preservation of archival materials, consult the sources below. 

Bibliography of Conservation and Preservation Resources
Compiled by Maria Kessler, April 2005

Websites 

Conservation OnLine (CoOL) http://palimpsest.stanford.edu

This website is a project of the Preservation Department of Stanford University Libraries. It contains a full text library of conservation information, covering a wide spectrum of topics of interest to those involved with the conservation of library, archives and museum materials.
Council on Library and Information Resources www.clir.org/pubs/reports/reports.html
This website provides reports on the care and handling of many types of materials.  It includes guidelines for every type and level of libraries and archives.

Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) www.nedcc.org/leaflets/leaf.htm

NEDCC’s mission is to improve the preservation programs of libraries, archives, museums, and other historical and cultural organizations.  The Center also provides conservation services.   This website provides leaflets on many preservation and conservation topics.

Books

Paul N. Banks and Roberta Pilette, eds. Preservation: Issues and Planning. Chicago & London: American Library Association, 2000.

This book is a compilation of 18 articles on major topics in library preservation.  The following issues are addressed: setting up a preservation program, environment control, handling emergencies, funding preservation, and exhibition techniques.

Wilhelm, Henry and Carol Brower. The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs: Traditional and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives, Slides, and Motion Pictures.  Grinnell, IA:  Preservation Publishing Company, 1993.

This book provides extensive guidelines in preserving photographs, slides, negatives, and motion pictures.  Many of the techniques can be easily applied to small or large collections.  Novices and experts can both benefit from this information.

Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, Preserving Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2003 (2nd printing).

This book gives comprehensive instructions on caring for and preserving archival materials.  This would most help those institutions with large collections.