Teaching #HistSex with the MHL

~This post courtesy Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook, Reference Librarian, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Photo is by Kathleen J. Barker. Used with permission.

Each summer, the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Center for Teaching History hosts a series of workshops for K-12 teachers seeking to incorporate primary sources and contemporary historical scholarship into their curriculum. For the first time this year, the Center offered a three-day workshop in teaching LGBT History. As one of the Society’s reference librarians, with some background in history of sexuality research, I volunteered to spend a morning with the group sharing topic-specific research strategies. In addition to talking about the Society’s own catalog and collections, we discussed the challenges of historically-specific terminology. I introduced them to the Homosaurus, a controlled vocabulary of terms related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender lives, and we talked about the genres of material that might contain information about human sexuality: personal and family papers, visual materials, legal records, religious tracts, and medical literature.


After my presentation and a tour of the Society’s library, showcasing our own collections, the final third of the morning was spent on a research exercise in which I invited the sixteen workshop participants to search three different access tools: the Massachusetts Historical Society’s online catalog, the Digital Transgender Archive, and finally the Medical Heritage Library’s collections via the MHL’s full text search tool. My instructions were to


  1. Think of a research question or topic related to the history of sexuality.
  2. Brainstorm a handful of search terms (up to a dozen) related to your topic.
  3. Use these search terms in each of the three access tools.


To take the example search I performed for the group as a whole, we began with the question, “How did teenagers learn/think about sex in the 19th century?” Then, we brainstormed possible search terms, including:


  • Sex education
  • Teenager
  • Adolescent
  • Puberty
  • Family life
  • Marriage preparation
  • Premarital sex


Then, we performed a search in each of the three search tools listed above: the MHS catalog, the Digital Transgender Archive, and the Medical Heritage Library’s full-text search. For the Medical Heritage Library’s full-text search, we began with a broad search for “sex education” in literature published between 1800 and 1900. Because the MHL provides a full-text search, however preliminary, the search results were much different from the results in the DTA and MHS catalog and prompted fruitful conversation about how both the content of a collection and its access tools shape our approaches to finding materials.


The goal of this exercise was to prompt our workshop participants to think about how different types of tools produce different search results depending upon the controlled vocabularies used, the contents of the archive, and the type of search being conducted. These questions may seem basic to archivists and librarians who spend their workdays developing and using different types of search tools, but for many of our participants the discussion of historical terms and controlled vocabularies prompted them to think in entirely new ways about how to locate materials related to the history of sexuality in archival repositories and digital collections.


The Center for Teaching History plans to run this workshop again next summer and I look forward to expanding on this exercise, hopefully giving our participants a chance to delve into the actual items their searches uncover.

Tuberculosis, Public Health, and Big Data

In case you missed it, last week we were proud to host five posts from Tom Ewing’s Data in Social Context class at Virginia Tech. Each post was written by a group of students who selected and researched a topic centered on tuberculosis and public health data in the United States around the beginning of the twentieth century. The data they used came from the Medical Heritage Library collections and we were privileged to talk to the students via Skype and be able to work with them on their drafts.

The posts are collected here for ease of reference — we highly recommend all of them! Continue reading

Guest Post: The Impact of Tuberculosis on Adults as Measured by Philadelphia’s Vital Statistics

Today we are pleased to feature five guest posts from Tom Ewing’s Virginia Tech Introduction to Data in Social Context class! This final post is from E. Thomas Ewing and Nicholas Bolin.

The social impact of tuberculosis in the late nineteenth century was distinguished by the relatively high mortality rate among adult populations. This social impact can be graphically illustrated in a chart showing the relative number of deaths over a six year period in the city of Philadelphia due to the ten most common causes for the adult population, aged 20-50 years. Of these causes, tuberculosis accounts for nearly half — or the same number of the other nine causes combined. Of the approximately 33,000 adult deaths from all causes in this six year period, tuberculosis accounted for more than one-third (35.8%), more than three times as many deaths as other leading causes (typhoid fever, pneumonia, and accidents and injuries). As this graph suggests, the vital statistics collected and analyzed by government agencies, preserved by medical libraries in published form, and now widely accessible through the Medical Heritage Library in digital form are both an excellent source of data for analysis with modern tools and a basis for thinking about the ways that public officials used statistical analysis to identify health concerns and recommend appropriate policies. Continue reading

Guest Post: Tuberculosis in California: A Statistical Analysis From 1880-1910

Today we are pleased to feature five guest posts from students in Tom Ewing’s Virginia Tech Introduction to Data in Social Context class! This post is from Jack Fleisher, Jae Ha, Joey Hammel.

We chose to explore tuberculosis in California because of a few interesting characteristics. One of these characteristics was the phenomenon of California being seen as a beacon of health and longevity in the late 1800s, and as a result, attracting many individuals sick with tuberculosis thinking that moving there was their best hope to recover and alleviate their disease.  We suspected that this would drive up the tuberculosis rates as the increase in the population of those previously diagnosed would raise the death rate above where it would be for the Californian-born population.   Continue reading

Guest Post: Tuberculosis in Boston: The Impact of Socioeconomic Factors

Today we are pleased to feature five guest posts from students in Tom Ewing’s Virginia Tech Introduction to Data in Social Context class! This post is from Brian Yuhas, Claire Ko, Emma Rhodes.

The discussion of socioeconomic factors and their impact on tuberculosis came about as a result of our inadequate knowledge of the disease and our wish to delve deeper into how this disease influenced everyday life in the 1890s. Our research focused on whether economic status had an apparent effect on the deaths that occurred in Boston due to tuberculosis in the late nineteenth century. Did similar population densities have the same tuberculosis rates among different classes? Did wards with higher tax revenue experience higher or lower tuberculosis death rates? Through the 1890s Vital Statistics report for Boston, we were able to come to some conclusions about the correlation between wealth and likelihood of death due to tuberculosis in the city. Continue reading

Guest Post: The Experiments of Dr. Robert Koch: A Reconsideration of the Scientific Method for Evaluating Treatments for Tuberculosis

Today we are pleased to feature five guest posts from students in Tom Ewing’s Virginia Tech Introduction to Data in Social Context class! This post is from Christian Averill, Robbie D’Amato, Nathan Gibson, and Jonathan Silbaugh.

During the nineteenth century, a widespread desire for a cure for tuberculosis prompted intense interest in any claims of a medical breakthrough in diagnosing and treating this disease. When German physician Robert Koch announced in 1882 that he had discovered that the cause of the disease was a bacillus known as M. Tuberculosis, his discovery was widely celebrated as a major medical breakthrough. Eight years later, however, his claims to have discovered a cure for tuberculosis aroused more substantive questions about the veracity of his claims as well as the methods, findings, and analysis advanced to support these claims. This post examines some of the evidence involved in this discussion with the goal of evaluating Koch’s claims relative to standard procedures used now to discover, test, and approve cures. Continue reading

Guest Post: “Phthisiophobia”: The Tuberculosis Clinic in New York City and Popular Anxieties about Public Health Dangers

Today we are pleased to feature five guest posts from students in Tom Ewing’s Virginia Tech Introduction to Data in Social Context class! The first is from Allyson Manhart, Andrew Pregnall, and Harshitha Narayanan.

TB_Infirmary_OpenToPatientsAt the beginning of the twentieth century the Treasury Department of the United States classified pulmonary tuberculosis as a “dangerously contagious disease” which meant that any immigrant found to have tuberculosis coming to the United States would be denied entrance. The ban led to a swift reaction from the physicians of the New York Academy of Medicine, many of whom argued that the ban created unnecessary fear of those with tuberculosis.
Continue reading

The Final Week!

Yesterday started the countdown of the final week of our 2014 user survey!

We’re closing it down on November 25th — that’s next Tuesday.

To date, we have over 50 responses, well over our totals in the previous two surveys. Thank you.

If you haven’t taken the survey yet or if you have students or colleagues who should know about the MHL or do use the collection, please take the survey yourself and pass the link on. 

We use this information for planning our future development so every answer is important to us: tell us what you need, what you use, and how you use it so we can get you more of it in the future.


Searching the Archive (II)

The last formal way of searching the Internet Archive, whether for content from the Medical Heritage Library or other collections, is via the advanced search function.

As you can see, advanced search allows you to construct quite a complex search. However, none of these fields are mandatory and you can enter as much or as little as you wish in any of them. You can select “contains” or “does not contain” from any of the relevant dropdown boxes to construct something like a Boolean search query. You can select custom fields in three fields to include a number of additional query terms:

The list goes on from here! The custom fields allow you to construct a highly specified search query, but you need to know a lot about your desired item in order to make them most useful.

Again, if you’re using this search function to track down a specific title in the MHL collection, the best way to go about it would be to enter what you know of the book you’re looking for — author, title, place of publication, year of publication, and so forth — and select the “American Libraries” collection. The more you know about the book, the more information you can enter into the search engine, and the more likely you are to find the requisite title quickly.

If you’re not trying to track down one particular book, however, this search function can be very helpful in returning lists of items for you to browse through: you can combine and recombine search terms, authors, titles, places, dates, and collections to create very specific lists of search results, using the functionality of the search engine to show you exactly the results you want.

For more tips on searching the MHL, check out our MHL @ Internet Archive page and as always, for more from the Medical Heritage Library, please visit our full collection!