Welcome to The Casey Wood Collections Project, a blog dedicated to the preservation of history-in-the-making
Is it possible to archive the making of history? That is the core question of this blog, The Casey Wood Collections Project, which attempts to record the passage of two historians and an archivist as they explore the life and legacy of Casey Albert Wood (1856–1942), a Canadian physician, ophthalmologist, amateur anthropologist, traveller, ornithologist, editor and bibliophile who bestowed rich and varied collections on McGill University.
Born in Wellington, Ontario in 1856, Casey Wood was educated in Ottawa, studied at McGill University, and earned an MD from Bishop’s University in 1877. He began a career as a physician in Montreal, but from 1886 began further studies in Europe, until beginning an ophthalmology practice in Chicago in 1890. Throughout his life he built up a magnificent and varied collection of medical instruments and manuscripts that now reside in several institutions across McGill: Rare Books and Special Collections, the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, and the Redpath Museum. Our interests in Casey Wood arose after each one of us, separately and coincidentally, encountered parts of his collections through our day-to-day research activities, and were inspired to explore them further. We came together to discuss possibilities for a collaborative project, that might include research papers and the reconstruction of his personal library, and culminate in the digitisation of his manuscripts held by the Osler.
Yet historical scholarship is a lengthy process. It can also be an obscure one for those not engaged in it. Years can pass between the glimmer of an original idea and the appearance of edited, revised, illustrated, peer-reviewed publications, which rarely retain the raw wonder that first drove them. What occurs in between is often lost, or simply misrepresented as in the myth of a lone historian in the library. An irony of historical scholarship is that it tends to conceal as much history as it represents. Realising this, and desiring a swifter output, we discussed the possibilities of visualisation: in particular, whether we could expose at least some of the concealed processes of our project as it unravelled.
Blogs and Archives
The Casey Wood Collections Project is therefore intended as an experimental online space, a virtual archive, the aim of which will be to preserve the capricious paths of scholarship from the first confrontation with alien quantities of documents and objects to the presentation of disciplined research findings. We want to record the dead-ends and accidents, the thoughts we will later take pride in or sooner forget, the falling in and out of love and interest with actors and their ideas, the losing of patience and gaining of skills, the taking up and abandoning of sources, the selections and exclusions and painful discriminations, and the formation of partial certainties from utter mystification as we stumble on a convoluted quest to wrestle new knowledge from old.
For this purpose, we reasoned, a blog has several advantages. First, it allows us to transcribe history-making as it unfolds, as it falters, progresses, stalls and restarts, and gradually shapes order from chaos. Its quality of being ‘live’, or close to ‘real-time’, and its potential to approximate the spontaneity of thought, was another advantage, and set it apart, we surmised, from diaries and memoirs. It could plausibly represent different elements of the research process too, not merely written and textual, but visual, spoken, auditory and even cinematographic. Its immediacy was a further incentive, a way to undercut the contrivances of memory and forgetfulness, or the sanitising effects of editorial interventions.
What will follow are blog entries that recount our separate engagements with the materials of the Casey Wood collections, such as records of archival visits or notes on primary and secondary materials. The nature of our blog is therefore casual, even haphazard. It is the fieldwork before the authorship, and it follows that its content will be comparably unorganised and reflective, ridden with unrefined thoughts and fleeting ideas, full of components that are incomplete or in the process of completion, lacking in references or the other formal hallmarks of professional history. In other words, to give a sense of what doing history is, we propose to write a blog that includes everything history is not.
We felt that there was no better time to do this than now. As major world libraries – and smaller ones too – grapple with a rapidly changing information landscape, their annual reports and figureheads convey a sense of a pending threshold in knowledge, of seismic transitions to virtual means of preservation and display, as well as their attendant dilemmas. It follows that in the very act of creating this kind of an archive we hope to push the sense of what ‘archive’ means, or could mean, in the advent of new ways to preserve and represent historical sources. Ours is a vision that runs deliberately counter to the image of the archive as static repository for lost knowledge, and instead contributes to its identity as a dynamic force for scholarship and ideas, and of archivists as figures intrinsic to the historical process, whose decisions shape and groove the course of knowledge-making in profound ways.
For one of us, who works professionally at the Osler Library, the question of what to preserve and how to preserve it are urgent daily priorities. For the other two, who have postdoctoral positions in historical disciplines, the challenge is to keep abreast of ever-increasing number of new ways to searching out materials, and incorporate new formats of knowledge into the creation of history. As our joint curiosity shifts from a casual interest to an inventory of lucid conclusions (we hope!) spread throughout books and journals, museum exhibitions and other collaborative outputs, online and off, we intend to highlight the bridge between the conceptual and practical aspects of historical work, and thereby interrogate the shifting links between the historians and archivists of a digital age.
All History is Collective
Such a project, like all history, is intrinsically collective. Merely by asking questions one casts a wide net upon a motley set of characters, often unsuspecting, occasionally enthusiastic, and, in many cases, subsequently crucial to the research process. By donating so widely, Casey Wood has already set a trajectory for us to follow as we retrace a passage of objects and ideas from the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka to the museums and libraries of McGill. The objects include books, olas, pill boxes, styluses, water clocks, masks, and diverse implements of therapy and ritual, to name just a few among many. Their flow through multiple worlds and their current residency in a North American university promises to raise exciting, important and sometimes contentious questions. Casey Wood lived in and through turbulent times. Such major topics as colonialism, the politics of benefaction and display, even the rise of European fascism are refracted through the many elements of his collections, and we look forward to confronting the challenges they throw open in course of our project.
Similarly, we welcome a wider involvement to orient our curiosity, since a blog permits an element of collective creativity that other formats of history typically restrict: namely, the chance for interactive contributions through online engagement. The Casey Wood Collections Project is intended above all as an open and evolving resource dedicated to making history through the act of recording it. For that reason, it is as much yours as ours, as much a public space meant for the cultivation of knowledge as a cluster of private reflections blogged for posterity, and one that welds motives of scholarship to visions of a public history, however idealistic. Hence we welcome your thoughts and comments as we progress with our own. Please join us as we explore the collections of Casey Wood.