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Vol. LXV, No. 19
September 13, 2013

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History Office Urges Retirees to Consider Preserving Items
After a basement flood, Linda Brown (c) found a wealth of sunken—or at least partially submerged—treasures treasures rescue by the Office of NIH History.
After a basement flood, Linda Brown (c) found a wealth of sunken—or at least partially submerged—treasures shown at right after rescue by the Office of NIH History.

Whether or not you think about it, every second you are making history. Every piece of paper you have written on or every piece of lab equipment you have used in an experiment has shaped your presence today—and NIH’s as well. Michele Lyons, curator at the Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum, emphasizes that what is often recycled or disposed of when an NIH worker retires is actually of historical significance.

“It takes everyone to make NIH work and we can all contribute to NIH’s history,” she says. “For example, photos of people at work or play at NIH.” To counter unwitting disposal of historical items, Lyons has begun a program to collect and safeguard NIH-related items donated by employees.

Lyons’s project came to life when long-time NIH Medical Arts authority Linda Brown lost stored paper items due to a flood in her basement. Brown decided to donate the remainder of her surviving NIH-related memorabilia, amassed over a career of more than 40 years, to the Office of NIH History for safekeeping. An artist herself, she donated a wealth of graphic art created mostly in-house, including brochures, invitations to events, meeting and symposium notices, consensus reports, annual reports, telephone books and fliers.

Lyons hopes that preserving NIH documents will benefit current and future historians both medically and artistically. She imagines that medical historians will be able to track knowledge and innovations over time, changing perspectives on medicine and societal-based public health trends. As for art historians, she thinks they’ll enjoy evaluating changing art mediums and graphic design styles. Lyons believes the public will appreciate the collection as well: “The art is just beautiful and visually stunning!”

Lyons appeals to all NIH’ers to consider donating items for three additional reasons: to preserve and protect history; to comply with the law (the material, she says, “is technically federal property, so legally you should not take things home or throw them away without consulting [the Office of NIH History] and your records manager”); and to honor posterity—“If you don’t save your history, the historians of the future won’t know about you.” History is assessed almost exclusively through evidence, she said, cautioning that scientific papers comprise only a small percentage of evidence.

While it may seem easier, and greener, to scan a document for the Office of NIH History and then recycle it, Lyons prefers to retain the physical document. She explains, “Digital platforms become obsolete so quickly—there is no guarantee that anyone 10 years from now, much less 150 years from now, will be able to access a digital-only collection…Paper lasts.”

In addition, the threat of cyberattack or solar flare renders digital files less reliable than physical copies. Above all, Lyons regards examining tangible copies as a “totally different experience” from examining digital files. “Looking at an image online is a pale imitation of holding an actual object.”

Lyons asks that employees contact her either at (301) 496-6610 or to discuss items before donating them to the Office of NIH History, as some objects may be better placed at the National Library of Medicine or the National Archives.

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