Scholarship on Latin America’s medical history has traditionally relied on collections located in specific countries that are housed in national and regional archives, universities, medical schools, and government institutions. Digitized source repositories and reference websites will make these materials more accessible for researchers and students, and it is likely that digitized content will become increasingly available in the coming years.
In the 21st century, various institutions in Latin America and the United States have made a concerted effort to digitize materials related to the study of health and medicine in Latin America. This effort is the product of advancements in technology that make digital preservation of material possible, as well as a growing awareness that not all archival collections, especially in Latin America, are stored in optimal conditions. The push for digitization, therefore, is centered on two primary goals: first, to make resources more available to researchers and remove obstacles to the use of archival collections, including accessibility and physical distance or travel restrictions, and second, to preserve materials in danger of decay or neglect from storage in subpar conditions. The digitization of a broad array of materials, including historical documents, newspapers, popular culture, photographs, music, and audio recordings, fosters greater use of these collections by researchers, teachers, and students inside and outside of Latin America and enhanced interaction with the institutions that maintain the digital and original collections.
While not exhaustive, these sites demonstrate the extensive range of digitized sources available for the study of Latin America’s medical history. Materials span from the pre-Columbian through modern periods; the priority is collections with significant 20th-century content, but those focused on the colonial period and the 19th century are noted. The collections tap into several historiographical themes and discussions prominent in Latin American medical history, including questions about individual agency and the role of the state in administering health and medical initiatives; race, gender, and discriminatory health practices; social issues, such as prostitution and alcoholism, as public health concerns; debates about who can produce medical knowledge; the creation of medical professionalism and medical authority; and Pan-Americanism and the role of United States influence on Latin American health programs.
The pace of digitization has been uneven across Latin America. A country’s wealth and access to resources determines the extent to which materials can be digitized, as do political considerations and legislation regarding transparency. Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina are well represented in the entries, and the collections are either supported by national institutions, such as universities, libraries, or government archives, or sponsored by grants that facilitate the digitization of materials. For example, the collection from Peru relies on a UK-based charitable foundation for its existence. Digital collections based in the United States are located in archival institutions and research centers and focus on the activities of Inter-American, Pan-American, and philanthropic organizations, although not exclusively.
Digitized collections greatly improve accessibility to sources related to Latin American medical history, but also depend on the user’s ability to navigate different interfaces and knowledge in how to limit and target searches. Many of the sites allow for keyword searches and the opportunity to browse collections; therefore, a user’s familiarity with the topic, scope, and keywords of a collection will determine the usefulness of search results. Where downloadable material is available, it is provided free of charge, and most of these repositories state a commitment to open access and to growing their digital collections.