Adventures in the Archives
Discovery, Interrupted

Discovery, Interrupted

It was the third and final week of my first dissertation research trip. I’d spent my first two weeks moving slowly through the collections at the University of Akron’s Cummings Center for the History of Psychology (CCHP). It was a joy to take my time getting to know the clinical psychologists who would feature in my dissertation: Henry Herbert Goddard, Leta Stetter Hollingworth, and John Edward Wallace Wallin. I gradually learned of fragile alliances and bitter feuds between these leaders in the development of special education and intelligence testing. “The fact is, Wallin, there are several points of resemblance between you and a jack-ass,” wrote Goddard in 1913, much to my delight.1

But now, as my time drew to a close, I was frantic. An unanticipated mountain of microfilm had entirely upended my research plan. The “discovery” that promised to transform my dissertation wasn’t mine, and the excitement it spurred wouldn’t last. It was a discovery made, and unmade, by archival labor, ethical dilemmas, and the high price tag of archival preservation.

Archival Labor

The microfilm — all three hundred reels of it — contains 22,000 case records from the Psychological Clinic of the University of Pennsylvania. There, in 1896, clinical psychologist Lightner Witmer founded the first psychological clinic in the United States.2 In College Hall (the building that coincidentally now houses my department, history), Witmer, his colleagues, and his graduate students examined Philadelphia’s children. They assigned diagnoses and recommended treatments that ranged from tonsil removal or obtaining glasses to placement in a “special class,” boarding school, or an institution for the “feebleminded.”

Lightner Witmer. (Introduction to Clinical Psychology, Compass & Gotlib, 2002/Wikimedia Commons)

When I arrived at the CCHP in Akron, I knew about Witmer. I had read the monthly journal he published, which featured his reflections on the nature of childhood and mental development. Combining his own path-breaking work with research from the nation’s other leading clinical psychologists, Witmer’s journal helped define the field in the first decades of the twentieth century. I also knew that the only relevant material the CCHP catalog displayed when I searched his name were the research papers of Paul McReynolds, who published a biography of Witmer in 1997.3

Copies of selected Psychological Clinic case records appear in McReynolds’s papers. Reading even just a few revealed that they spoke to the driving question of my dissertation: How did everyday people participate in the diagnosis and institutionalization of “feebleminded” children in the early twentieth century? The case records illuminate the hopes and worries that motivated parents, teachers, and social workers when they sought an expert’s judgment on a child’s non-normative behaviors. Detailed follow-up records also reveal what shaped family decisions to pursue or reject an expert’s treatment recommendations. What’s more, a letter between McReynolds and John Popplestone, the CCHP’s founder, suggested that the archive had much more on Witmer and his clinic than my catalog search had indicated.

Historians like to think of ourselves as detectives. It would be nice to pretend that, despite the collection’s lack of description or keywords, I sleuthed my way to the Julius Wishner Papers and the treasure trove of microfilm they held. In reality, I brought the suspicious McReynolds letter to Lizette Royer Barton, the CCHP’s tireless and generous reference archivist. Only her intimate knowledge of the archive’s history, skillful use of the catalog, and several hours of work located the case files. It was an indeed a discovery of sorts, for the records hadn’t been accessed since the nineties, and their existence and unique value had passed from immediate institutional memory. Though I asked the question, the (re)discovery was Barton’s.

Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Ethics Roadblock

My panic over how I might approach this mass of records, and my excitement over the new possibilities they offered, were resolved the morning I was scheduled to view them. The archive’s leadership and staff had been unaware of just what this collection contained. Now that they knew, they decided the records were too sensitive for researchers to view until all identifiable information had been redacted. I would not be sitting in front of a microfilm reader before my flight home at the end of the week.

The decision was frustrating and disappointing, and it reflected the sometimes conflicting ways in which both archivists and historians identify their obligation to historical research subjects. It also raised questions about how both professions should balance privacy and access in approaching personal medical information. When archivists close records or hide patients’ names from historians, or historians obscure patients’ names from their readers by use of pseudonyms, do they protect previously exploited medical subjects from further exploitation? Or, as medical historian Susan Lawrence argues, does an emphasis on privacy further stigmatize disabled historical actors by legitimizing the notion that their labels are shameful and should remain secret?4

In the following months, I learned about the varying ways professors and fellow graduate students answer these questions as I shared my experience — and heard confessions of misplaced confidential records stumbled upon and kept secret, and restricted material photographed on the sly.

The Money Conundrum

The financial cost of archival preservation and access is both the reason the Psychological Clinic’s case records still exist and the reason I can’t see them. In the 1970s, Penn’s University Archive was short on space and planned to destroy the case records, which were deemed too voluminous and expensive to keep. With support from the university administration and a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, psychology professor Julius Wishner intervened to copy the records onto the space- and money-saving technology of microfilm. The originals were then destroyed.5

National Archives steps for the selection and preparation of records for microfilm. (National Archives)

Wishner took responsibility for the records, which he eventually transferred to Akron (this is how his name became the only identifier in the catalog). Had the records remained at Penn, they would now be inaccessible in perpetuity: Pennsylvania state law requires that all mental health patient records remain closed regardless of creation date or whether the patient is living or dead, and the university strictly interprets and adheres to this law.6

Although the CCHP in Ohio is not as legally bound, they are ethically obligated to act as stewards of their collections and the people whose stories they contain. Their decision to privilege the privacy of Witmer’s patients by redacting their names is understandable. It’s also expensive. I have the technology of microfilm to thank for the fact that a version of the clinic’s case records still exists, but intervening decades have created a new problem: the CCHP’s microfilm readers are aging, and the software that would have made scanning it easy is expired and unrealistically expensive to replace. They have other collections to process and maintain, a new museum to staff, and half the building under construction. A large-scale redaction and digitization project is beyond the reach of their already shoestring budget. So now I wait, keeping an eye out for grants and sitting with the discomfort of knowing a collection exists, but the money to make it accessible does not.

I’m hardly alone in that discomfort. Historians with limited (or non-existent) institutional and research funding are familiar with wistfully scrolling through a collection’s finding aid with no clear idea of when, if ever, they might afford a trip to see it. This is the democratizing potential of digitization, which shifts this cost from researchers to archives.

Scanning a roll of microfilm. (Ianaré Sévi/Wikimedia Commons)

Yet many archives, large and small, have shrinking budgets that can’t support such initiatives. As a recent panel at the American Historical Association’s 2019 meeting attested (and Christopher Deutsch subsequently explored in a Twitter thread), even the National Archives and Records Administration faces a crisis of funding that will affect the research historians are able to do, both in person and online.

The problem is global. Where money for preservation is hard to find, where war or natural disaster destroy valuable historical records and monuments, the very power imbalances that historians seek to reveal are obscured and reified. In her book Dust, Carolyn Steedman describes archival research: “There is the great, brown, slow-moving strandless river of Everything, and then there is its tiny flotsam that has ended up in the record office you are at work in.”7

The politics of preservation favor empires, the powerful, those who we would never consider anonymizing. They are the flotsam, well-cataloged and carefully preserved. The colonized, the powerless, the child examined and joked about in front of a class of Penn psychology graduate students, they are far more likely to end up adrift in that “river of Everything.”

As archival staff and budgets are sacrificed to attrition, evidence will fall through the cracks. There will be no personnel with the time to process new acquisitions, and for the sake of speed, collections that do get processed will have shorter and vaguer finding aids. Rare and unseen documents, voices as-yet unheard, and buried case records will become well and truly lost, with no guarantee of a future “discovery” about which a historian may glory and write a self-indulgent think piece.

Quite the lesson for a first research trip.


  1. Letter from H.H. Goddard to J.E.Wallace Wallin, Jan. 17, 1913, Goddard Collection, Box M232, Folder 7, Cummings Center for the History of Psychology, Akron, OH. Return to text.
  2. Lightner Witmer, “Clinical Psychology,” The Psychological Clinic 1, no. 1 (1907): 9. Return to text.
  3. Paul McReynolds, Lightner Witmer: His Life and Times (Washington, DC: The American Psychological Society, 1997). Return to text.
  4. Susan Lawrence, Privacy and the Past: Research, Law, Archives, Ethics (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2016). Return to text.
  5. Murray Levine and Julius Wishner, “The Case Records of the Psychological Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania (1896-1961),” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 13 (1977): 59-66. Return to text.
  6. J.J. Ahern, email to the author, July 10, 2018. Return to text.
  7. Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 18. Return to text.

Chelsea Chamberlain is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania. She specializes in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States with a focus on disability studies, law, and medicine. Before coming to the University of Pennsylvania, she received a BA from Whitworth University and an MA in History from the University of Montana.