What will happen to the Wilma West Library and archives of the occupational therapy profession?

During the last year, minutes from the Board meetings of the American Occupational Therapy Association indicate that there has been discussion on two matters that have an important impact on the Wilma West Library, home of the collected resources that catalog the history of occupational therapy.

Around last year, discussion apparently started getting more specific related to sale of AOTA's current building.  In May 2018 the board authorized the (re)allocation of funds necessary to pay off the mortgage on the building and exploration of new sites for the organization's operations.  It is unclear if a new location has been identified, but in the recent February 2019 meeting a current board member will provide consultation regarding redesign and build out of the new space, indicating that the process is moving forward.

Also noted in the February 2019 minutes is that AOTA will take sole responsibility and ownership for the Wilma West Library, excluding graduate theses and dissertations, effective July 1, 2019.  This motion will now go to the American Occupational Therapy Foundation Board for their consideration.

This is interesting, because I believed that the library was a function of AOTF - it is listed as one of their primary activities on their Form 990s.  However, on the AOTA website they indicate that some of the library functions are jointly operated.  It may be that some of the archives technically belong to AOTA but are housed within the AOTF library.  Such convolution of function is not unusual for AOTA; they previously had such tangled relationships with AOTCB (NBCOT) and now with ACOTE.

In any event, the issue should be of interest to the occupational therapy profession because of the long history of trouble with appropriately maintaining the occupational therapy archival history.  In fact, this topic was the focus of an article in the American Historical Association's online magazine entitled 'From Chaos to Archives: The Records of the American Occupational Therapy Association.'

The article was written in 1998 and talks about how AOTA's records were initially kept in the homes of early leaders, including an iconic story about how Eleanor Clarke Slagle kept records in the kitchen of her New York City apartment.  Reportedly, between 1920-1960 there was a very haphazard method employed for record-keeping.  I was pleasantly surprised when I made a trip to the Wilma West library a couple years ago and was able to locate a treasure trove of archival material - certainly, not all of the records were lost or tossed.  According to the article, the start of organization can be credited to the efforts of the Blocker History of Medicine Collection in the Moody Medical Library in Galveston and Robert Bing.  In 1992, the records were all relocated to the Wilma West Library, reportedly a function of AOTF.

Ongoing efforts by AOTF (?) librarians were undoubtedly helpful over the years.  I have had interactions with several people who were always helpful and interested in more organizational efforts.  I was told by several librarians over time that digitization was often a dream (particularly of some of the early historical documents), but the resources required to complete the task were out of reach.

The Wilma West Library is currently located within the AOTA building, but now it appears that the building is being sold and new space is being considered  - and that AOTA will take over the operations of the library.  This is a significant undertaking and it would be good to hear from both AOTA and AOTF about what the plans for this material will be in the future.  Given the concerns of the past related to maintenance of the occupational therapy profession's archives, this is an important topic and several questions need to be asked:

1. Who owns the archives?
2. Who will be responsible for its maintenance?
3. Will there be more resources available to make the archives accessible to researchers?
4. Will there be dedicated space for these materials in the new AOTA space?  If not, where will these materials be housed?
5. Will access to the archives still be possible for researchers given the move and the transfer of responsibility?

I am hopeful that we can hear a lot more public discussion about the plans for the Wilma West Library.


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