Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pernkopf's Atlas at UW

I found this week's readings very interesting to my work experience at Ebling Health Sciences Library here at UW. The Freedom to Read statement was a very fitting prelude to the Pernkopf controversy articles, and it is always a nice reminder to read about libraries' commitment to fighting censorship in defense of democracy and the right to individual choice. One of my favorite lines from the document was, "Every silencing of a heresy, every enforcement of an orthodoxy, diminishes the toughness and resilience of our society and leaves it less able to deal with controversy and difference."

This resounding statement seemed to tie in well with the Pernkopf articles. The issue of the Pernkopf Atlas was unknown to me, but I was intrigued by the debate surrounding it. Not only does it take issue in the realm of library ethics but also, as Atlas writes, with medical ethics as well. Parallel with the Freedom to Read statement, the MLA code of ethics also supports the inclusion of materials from diverse perspectives, oftentimes including the Pernkopf Atlas. After reading about this book, I had to check if we had it anywhere at UW. After work one day, I went upstairs to our stacks, and sure enough, UW has not one, not two, but five editions of the Pernkopf Atlas available for circulation (years 1943, 1952, 1957, 1960, and 1963-64).

I paged through the earliest edition and did not find any of the swastikas that were mentioned next to author signatures in the illustrations, which surprised me because I thought there would for sure be some in the 1943 edition. The illustrations truly are remarkable, and had I not read about the issues that some people take with the textbooks, I do not believe I would have ever known any better. In fact, I'm glad there was no disclaimer or label included on the work because my perceptions toward the book - again, if I had approached it without knowing about the issues - would have been automatically colored in a negative shade as opposed to viewing an incredible representation of the basic sciences for what their merit deserves.

Wolkoff (1996) writes, "Intellectual freedom must include the freedom to believe in a lie." Were the authors/illustrators lying by withholding information about the origins of the corpses used for the atlas? I don't believe so, and thus don't see any reason for the book's removal from collections or inappropriateness. But despite whether it is based on a lie or not, I support Wolkoff's assertion that we as librarians are not judges of truth. We are providers of the broadest and most useful and advanced formats and sources of information required by our fields.

1 comment:

  1. Katherine,
    I also thought that the problems presented Pernkopf's atlas were an interesting convergence of medical and library ethics. The issue is even more thorny by the apparent quality of this work on anatomy. It would be much easier to justify not acquiring new editions, weeding old ones or moving it to special collections if it were not considered a preeminent work on anatomy. I feel that the proper approach to Pernkopf's Atlas, is for the publisher to include a forward that mentions the history of the book and the likelihood that the cadavers that were used for the book were victims of political violence. This atlas is a historical example of why professional ethics are so essential. Because of modern imaging technology Pernkopf's Atlas may no longer be the best anatomy tool available, but it still should have value to scholars for study. Perhaps some future scholar may be better able to shed light on the origin of the cadavers and the horrors they may have endured.