Contributed by Leah Tams and Robert Allen
Since our presentation at the 2019 SNCA Conference, the Community Histories Workshop (CHW) at UNC Chapel Hill has continued its excavation of historical records from the Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. Dix was the state’s principal insane asylum for many decades, and its records are now held in the State Archives of North Carolina. The state’s open records law makes state records created more than 100 years ago available to the public, so we have a wealth of intriguing—and confronting—records to excavate and interpret. Of course, COVID-19 has temporarily halted our access to the State Archives, but we have a rich trove of CHW-digitized Dix records from which to work.
Our student employees have continued their excellent work in transcribing general case book forms (essentially extensive intake records) of patients, and thanks to their work we now have over 1,300 case book forms transcribed. Additionally, we have been working with the Odum Institute at UNC on getting our Admissions Ledger Database and other sets of digitized records published and requestable in UNC’s Dataverse. Due to the sensitive nature of the Dix materials, we crafted an ethics and professional practice agreement so that researchers will be fully aware and mindful of such sensitivities. We are looking forward to publishing the Dix materials and collaborating with our partners at UNC Chapel Hill, as well as eventually with partners outside of UNC.
Finally, we are teaching a graduate-level American Studies seminar that centers around the Dix records, focusing this semester on constructing case studies of select Dix patients. With these case studies, we are seeking to better understand the experiences of patients at Dix and how mental illness and other related diseases at the time were understood. We also believe that these case studies are important exercises in reinserting elements of humanity into asylum records and returning agency to individuals who were otherwise confined to an institution and stripped of their agency.