UCLA professor launches digital Archive of Healing™

The massive archive aims to democratize knowledge about wellness and health, while safeguarding indigenous traditions

UCLA professor launches digital Archive of Healing™
  • Monday, March 15, 2021 • 12:03 PM

LOS ANGELES, CA – (March 15, 2021) A project more than forty years in the making, The Archive of Healing™ is one of the largest databases of medicinal folklore from around the world. On March 21, 2021, UCLA professor Dr. David Shorter will launch an interactive, searchable website featuring hundreds of thousands of entries that span over 200 years, and draws from seven continents, six university archives, 3,200 published sources, and both first and second-hand information from folkloric fieldnotes.

The entries address a broad range of health-related topics including everything from midwifery and menopause to common colds and flus. The site aims to preserve indigenous knowledge about healing practices, while preventing that data from being exploited for profit.

“The whole goal here is to democratize what we think of as healing and knowledge about healing, and take it across cultures in a way that's respectful and gives attention to intellectual property rights,” said Shorter, the director of the archive and a professor in the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance.

Of particular concern is making sure pharmaceutical companies can’t mine the data and profit from indigenous knowledge. The archive “doesn't mention particular plant names or combinations that someone can make a lot of money off of, unless of course that information is generally known already or there's no way to locate where that information came from," Shorter said.

The bulk of the archive was collected over more than forty years by former UCLA professors Wayland D. Hand and Michael Owen Jones, who developed a taxonomic record for cures and treatments that they and their students found in books, scholarly articles, anthropologists’ field notes, and contributions from students in their classes who were adding data from their own families and research projects. By the late 1990s, they had amassed over a million notecards. After digitizing those notecards, the “Archive of Traditional Medicine” was made public, receiving praise from the mayor of Los Angeles and the U.S. Surgeon General. However, the archive was neither advertised widely nor prioritized as a research resource, and received few visitors.

In 2012, the UCLA Library asked Shorter whether the archive – now digitized, but with very limited searchability – should be preserved, and if so, in what form? Over the next nine years, Shorter and his team of students developed a strategy for providing public access to the materials in the database while protecting community interests. They re-coded all the data and developed a web-based interface that shows visitors differing results based on their user roles, e.g. general user, librarian/researcher, or healer/doctor. Visitors can now search the archive by healing modalities, and can further refine search results by treatment types, e.g. those that are worn, consumed, plant-based, or performed.

The new site, renamed The Archive of Healing™, will be able to accept new data submissions, enable users to connect with each other, and eventually will provide local recommendations for service providers. In order to protect communities from a resource-extraction model of knowledge sharing, not all the data that was originally collected can be seen. Licensing and accessibility rights remain in the hands of the archive’s director. The archive has already been a useful pedagogical tool, helping students learn how various cultures understand the body, wellness, and community health.

Stephanie Vargas, a junior gender studies major, who was enrolled in Shorter’s class on healing, said the class and experience with the Archive “has helped ignite my motivation to continue to strengthen my knowledge and share with my family and community.” She is particularly interested in considering “how practicing our indigenous languages and building relations with plants are part of healing ancestral trauma.”

Shorter’s newly designated community engagement course partners students with the archive, as well as with midwives, herbalists, healers, Indigenous leaders, and community wellness organizations around the region. As in other courses, Shorter aims for students to learn democratically, with others, not simply about others.

“Whether in the classroom, in a wiki site, or like the archive itself, my impulse has been to find ways that we can make knowledge together in a shared process of creativity, challenge, and inspiration,” Shorter said.

To learn more, visit the archive at www.archiveofhealing.com
Media Contact:
David Shorter, archiveofhealing@gmail.com
Avishay Artsy, avishay@arts.ucla.edu

Images available upon request.

About Professor David Shorter

Dr. David Delgado Shorter joined the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture’s Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance in 2008 and has affiliated faculty status with Anthropology, American Indian Studies, and Gender Studies. Much of Shorter’s work focuses on how knowledge-making practices vary across the globe, including those of Native people and what might be considered “esoteric.” He is the author of “We Will Dance Our Truth,” which grew out of 23 years of fieldwork with the Yoeme communities in northwest Mexico. In 2003, he created what is believed to be the first ethnographic website that utilized a tribal community’s aesthetics and ritual logic as the basis for the site’s design and functionality. “Vachiam Eecha” also defaulted to the tribe’s own language. In 2009, Shorter created the “Wiki for Indigenous Languages,” the first open-source, web-based social media hub centered on Indigenous language learning. These previous digital projects required a practical understanding of intellectual property rights and cross-cultural sharing of knowledge. A professor of colonialism and healing, Shorter has also studied reiki in Japan and Yoeme indigenous healing in Mexico.

Support for The Archive of Healing

The UCLA Common Collaboration and Learning Environment Innovation and Development Program helped pay for the original data to be exported for instructional use. Further support for programming, design, and public outreach was made possible with support from UCLA Dean of Humanities’ Discretionary Funds Award; UCLA Digital Research Consortium Digital Humanities Accelerator; UCLA Startup Faculty Innovation Fellowship; and UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture Faculty Research Grant. The collection and arrangement of materials contained within the original “Archive of Traditional Medicine” was supported in part by the UCLA Academic Senate, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Funding for the creation of the automated database and online archive was provided by the National Library of Medicine. Preliminary funds were also received by Dr. Wayland Hand (original project director) and/or Dr. Michael Owen Jones from the Canadian Museum of Civilization, National Institute on Cancer; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Mental Health, National Science Foundation; Office of Alternative Medicine; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the UCLA Council on Research.

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