On American Pickers and some homeless treasures of the occupational therapy profession

Many people accumulate stuff, and people ascribe varying levels of value to their stuff.  Some people can't part with stuff because of sentimental feelings.  Some people can't part with stuff because it represents a deeper psychological affliction.  We have cultural movements now that address the problematic relationships that people have with their stuff.

I initiated an Ebay hobby recently.  There is nothing like the death of parents and the associated task housecleaning that prompts assessment of the value of earthly goods. I have had quite a bit of fun selling things that I no longer wanted.

I am a fan of the show 'American Pickers' and am moved by Mike Wolfe's philosophy about finding things that people no longer wanted and 'putting them into their place' with someone who loved or appreciated them.  That is the flip side of my Ebay hobby - I have also purchased a few things that other people no longer wanted - and in doing so that brings me 'joy.'  So we all find joy in different ways - sometimes in the letting go and sometimes in the finding and keeping.  I think there is space for all of these approaches.

Over three years ago I asked the question, "What will happen to the Wilma West Library and archives of the occupational therapy profession?"  As the AOTA offices were moving the library was being weeded.  This is always a perilous task for any librarian, no matter how delicately they approach the process or how they attempt to frame their methodology.  Whenever you throw away books you will incur the wrath of people who don't want certain things thrown away. What is a librarian to do - meet the needs for joy, differentially defined, by anyone who expresses an opinion on the value of a given library treasure?

So what is important, and what is not, when it comes to the collection of materials in the libraries of a profession?  Are Mary Reilly's books important, simply because they belonged to Mary Reilly?  Who wants to be the person to throw THOSE books out?  Does it matter that they are all outdated by at least 50 years?

And then there is the issue of the occupational therapy master's theses.  At some point AOTA sent out a notification that anyone who wanted their thesis that was donated to the library should claim them.  Any thesis that was unclaimed was going to be disposed of.  I felt panic and had images of book burning running through my head! I am one of those people that librarians want to avoid when it comes to 'curating' their collections.

I immediately wrote a letter and laid claim to about 20 master's theses - asking if I could have them if no one else claimed them.  AOTA was happy to oblige - and even though I offered to pay for them (and the shipping) they just went ahead and sent me every single one I asked for - I thought it was very generous that they did that!

I was shocked - no one wanted or claimed Jean Ayres' master's thesis?  No one wanted the collective work of all Mary Reilly's graduate students and the theoretical groundwork they documented for the occupational behavior model?  Nope.  No one claimed them.  They had no home, or perhaps no one wanted them.  So I somehow got them into my hands.

What does one do with this kind of documented history?  Of course I read them, and then I started thinking about where they belonged.  The immediate answer I thought of was that they belonged in the archives of the professional occupational therapy association - but they were the ones who were throwing them away!  Where else should they go?

The OT Leaders and Legacy Society has a process of digitization and they were very interested in having them - but in the process of considering this transfer I learned that there are complex copyright laws for such materials.  For most of the unpublished OT theses, they are covered by copyright for 70 years after the death of the individual who produced the work.  That means that in order to digitize them, I would need to track down the next of kin or estates of these individuals - as many of them have passed away and can't provide a digitization release.

What a mess.  No wonder AOTA didn't want these any longer?  Maybe giving them to me was not so generous after all!

Who should be the correct steward of this information?  Just because it is hard, should AOTA have abdicated their role in the preservation of their own archives?  The American Historical Association has been critical of how the occupational therapy profession neglected archival materials in the past.  Has history simply repeated itself?

So I am now sitting on some pretty interesting historical documents.  One school learned that I had a copy of a specific thesis and apparently they have been unsuccessfully searching for it for a long time.  They asked and so I sent them a print copy - I figured it was a fair use argument and will take the risk of sharing it there - but I asked that it not be reproduced and explained the copyright problem.   Perhaps they will chase down permission - they have contact with the family who I understand is still connected to that institution.  Maybe that one can be digitized, at least.

But what about all the others?  Do I make a personal project of chasing down copyright releases from the families of all these occupational therapists who have passed away?  Is that my job now that I am caretaker of the documents?  I don't suppose I 'own' them given the copyright issue.

Do I find a way to put these treasures in their place and get them into the hands of people who will love them and appreciate them?  What a tough project that will be.  

Or do I box them up and wait for some bibliophilic picker to find them in another half century - when all the copyrights will have expired and the material is in the public domain?  Will there even be an occupational therapy profession then?

Tough questions - and so far I just don't have solid answers.  I am relatively certain that these things should not be in my hands and that this work belonged to the collective occupational therapy profession.  And I only saved the ones that I thought were most historic.

That is an important reflection point.  What has been lost - it is such a sad thing to ponder.  Hundreds and hundreds of books and theses were unclaimed and are now gone.

And of the small amount that was salvaged - does it just remain homeless, or unwanted?


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