An American Sanitarian “Over There”: Dr. Victor G. Heiser’s World War I Scrapbook and Diary

Cynthia Heider is the Digital Projects Specialist at the APS Center for Digital Scholarship, working to increase the digital accessibility...

November 11, 2018, will mark the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the historic day when the First World War was declared officially over. As this momentous occasion approaches, we at the APS take the opportunity to explore the World War I-related stories contained in our rich collections.

Heiser on horse
“Undated photo of Dr. Victor G. Heiser riding on a horse (Mss.B.H357.p Series X, item U4.4.98).”

“The rain, the thunder, and the lightning, interspersed with the cannonade, is calculated to inspire awe and fear in the hearts of men.” –Dr. Victor Heiser, September 10, 1917 (Mss.B.H357.p Series IX)

The papers of Dr. Victor G. Heiser comprise one of the APS’s most dynamic collections of World War I material. Heiser was a physician and public health administrator elected to APS membership in 1918. He traveled to war-torn Europe as part of the American Red Cross Commission to Italy evaluating the sanitation, administration, and medical supply of Italian military hospitals from July through October 1917. During this time, he maintained detailed diary entries and a carefully-composed scrapbook, both of which are preserved in his APS collection and have been recently added to the APS Digital Library. Together, the scrapbook and diary of those months provide an in-depth look at conditions at the Italian front of the war just prior to the Battle of Caporetto.

Heiser and his fellow commission members witnessed gruesome and heart-rending scenes at the Italian front and in medical treatment centers across Italy. Documents saved in the scrapbook, like a gas mask instructional manual and photographs of wounded soldiers, P.O.W. camps, artillery training, and a “liquid fire” demonstration, testify to the brutality of conditions of the war in the region. Yet, when Heiser wrote an article about his experience in the Journal of the American Medical Association in January of 1918, he was full of admiration for the competence, efficiency, and ingenuity of the Italian medical service that he had witnessed in action during the war. Confident that Italian health workers were doing an extraordinary job under difficult circumstances, he encouraged the American Red Cross to contribute more funding and supplies to their cause.

Some Memories are Harder to Preserve Than Others: The Scrapbook Challenge

Heiser Scrapbook
“Stamps from France, Italy, Britain, and the United States adorn Victor Heiser’s 1917 diplomatic passport, contained in his scrapbook" (Mss.B.H357.p Series VII).

Digitizing Heiser’s scrapbook proved more challenging than anticipated. Scrapbooks situate the features of a three-dimensional manuscript item—multi-page, multi-media, textured and faceted—within the form of a book, which would normally consist of two-dimensional pages. This meant that a good amount of logistical planning and creativity was required in scanning the scrapbook in order for the digital surrogate to represent the original object as faithfully as possible, which is an archival standard.

Thumbing through a scrapbook is a tactile experience as well as a visual one. Pasted-in pamphlets and fold-out maps encourage the reader to physically engage with the book to reveal the full story. They also make for uneven surfaces that are hard for an overhead scanner to compensate for. Folded items necessitate multiple images of a single page to show various views. Preserving the integrity of the original scrapbook experience means a digitizer must decide how to orient pages, how to flatten springy materials just enough to capture a satisfactory image without damaging them, and how to impose consistency on a fundamentally inconsistent object.

The APS collections contain many scrapbook-like items that, due to fragility and unwieldiness, are challenging to make fully available to researchers. With the Heiser scrapbook as our test case, we hope to simplify and standardize the process of digitizing these resources so that the rich stories they contain are more easily accessible.

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