Career Journeys: Drew Bourn

Drew Bourn is the Historical Curator for the Stanford Medical History Center in the Lane Medical Library at Stanford University.

What are your main responsibilities as an archivist?

I oversee the Stanford Medical History Center, which is the archives and rare books collection at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. My responsibilities include collections development and management, outreach, interpretive projects, such as exhibits and presentations, reference and research support, and development.

What is a typical day (or week) like for you?

Much of my time is spent working with researchers and connecting them with resources in our collections. I also do a lot of one-on-one instruction in how to do historical research.

What do you like most about your work? What’s most challenging?

I especially enjoy collaborating with faculty from many departments at Stanford University in teaching a range of topics that relate to the social history of medicine.
The biggest challenge comes from being a one-person operation. I have to be careful in how I manage my time. Because I don’t know in advance when I will receive reference inquiries, I need to be flexible in how I plan to fulfill the responsibilities of operating an archives.

What kinds of problems do you deal with? What kinds of decisions do you make?

Sometimes researchers are new to working with archival repositories, and there is work involved in managing expectations in terms of the kinds of resources and services we can provide as well as what the work of doing historical research can entail.
I need to make decisions about all aspects of operating the Medical History Center. Insofar as there are a great many other repositories that are also one-person operations, this is not a unique situation. Decisions include: doing appraisals of proffered collections, re-appraising existing holdings and de-accessioning when needed, revising descriptions and finding aids, developing disaster preparedness plans, making decisions about how researchers can make appointments and access our holdings as well as the physical layout of the reading room, the kinds of tools to provide researchers for digitization, permissions and other questions about the ways that researchers can use our resources, what kinds of exhibits and presentations to produce and how to market those, how to collaborate with Stanford faculty in teaching from the collections, and what kinds of professional development to pursue.

What current issues and trends in the field should readers know about/be aware of?

Researchers increasingly expect content to be digitized and available online. They also expect to be able to use digitized content without copyright restrictions or other barriers to use. I anticipate this will become increasingly pronounced, and can offer challenges.
Another aspect of increasing amounts of digitization is new opportunities to collaborate with other institutions in aggregating both ways of discovering content (such as union databases for finding aids) as well as aggregating content itself – including virtually re-uniting items that are held in separate institutions.

What are some career accomplishments you’re most proud of?

Within Stanford’s School of Medicine, I work less with students and faculty than I do with administration. In terms of my work with the administration, the Medical History Center is instrumental in the School’s ability to tell stories about itself. I have been proud of playing a role in interpreting the history of the School in a way that has involved shifting the focus away from stories about superstars such as Nobel Prize winners to an increased attention to the ways in which the history of the school has reflected broader social histories of race, immigration, gender and sexuality, and labor – for better and for worse.

How did you become interested in this field, and how did you begin your career?

I had spent some years out of school after completing my Bachelor’s degree – including time spent living overseas. During that time I indulged a love of languages and an interest in the histories of places. Upon entering graduate school I pursued a PhD that trained me as an historian. Upon completing that degree it became clear that the job market for tenure-track positions was different than promising. In thinking about the possibility of re-training for a different career, I had already had experience using archives as a researcher. Because I had enjoyed my time in archives, I was prompted to pursue a second masters by getting MLIS with an archives concentration. After that, I began working as an archivist.

What education, skills, and training have been essential to your success in this field?

In my case it has been important and valuable to have both a doctoral-level training in history and an MLIS in archives management. Historians and archivists each have their own bodies of theory and method, and although each depends upon the other, in my experience they very rarely have an understanding of each others’ work. By having one foot in the world of the historians and one foot in the world of the archivists, it has been easier for me to develop the Medical History Center with an understanding of researchers’ needs and expectations.

What advice would you give someone who is considering this type of job (or field)?

Become apprised of the disciplinary backgrounds of the people who come to use the archives. For example, gain some familiarity with theory and method in doing academic history. What is it like for an academic historian to publish an article, and what role does such a publication play in their career and their place within their profession? By the same token, how do genealogists or film and television producers operate? What are their needs when they come to the archives, and how do they use the content that they find? The more you can become aware of the norms of the worlds from which researchers come when they show up at your front door, the more easily you can communicate with them about how to find and use resources from your institution and elsewhere.

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