Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted and written by Lucas Richert, Chancellor’s Fellow in Health History at Strathclyde and co-editor in chief of Social History of Alcohol and Drugs. Enjoy!
Stephanie Schmitz is the Betsy Gordon Archivist for Psychoactive Substances Research at the Purdue University Archives & Special Collections, where she is responsible for building collections pertaining to psychedelic research, and ensuring that these materials are discoverable and accessible in perpetuity.
The conversation took place on June 8, 2018. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Stephanie and I sat down to talk in the Purdue Memorial Union’s coffee shop early on a Friday morning and immediately realized we couldn’t stay. There was far too much activity. It was incredibly loud. “I know another spot,” she told me.
Five minutes later, we found ourselves in an adjacent building. Stephanie was sipping coffee, as was I. We were set. Except not. A speaker on the floor beside us unexpectedly started up and the Kongos’ song “Come with me now” boomed. So we swiftly collected our belongings and moved across the room to a quieter table.
“Alright,” Stephanie laughed. “Now I can think.”
Tell me a bit about yourself and what brought you to Purdue?
I grew up down the street from the University of Maryland, where I earned both my bachelor’s degree (in clarinet performance) and master’s degree (in library and information science). I gained the bulk of my archival experience working in a performing arts archives while in graduate school. Upon completing my MLS, I strung together a variety of neat part-time jobs at special libraries in the DC area, which was fascinating from a behind-the-scenes perspective but not sustainable. When the opportunity at Purdue presented itself, I found it compelling for several reasons: it would allow me gain experience in a variety of aspects of archival work; I would get to focus on two different subject areas, both of which I found interesting (psychoactive substances as well as women’s history at Purdue); and I could tell that the Purdue Archives, while still relatively recently established, had extremely capable leadership and would provide me with firm grounding upon which to grow professionally.
Can you say a bit about your role here?
My role is to encourage those who played a part in scientific research with psychoactive substances to donate their personal papers to the Archives. This includes the psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and scientists and the materials that were generated over the course of their lives and career: correspondence, research notes, diaries or journals, photographs, speeches, presentations, and other unpublished materials that reveal how and why they carried out their work. Once these materials are transferred to the archives, I ensure their long term accessibility (through good archival description and preservation practices) and encourage their research use. I work with faculty to incorporate these primary source materials into class assignments or course projects; I raise awareness about this collecting area at symposia and conferences; and I ensure that the collection and the unique material within it are highlighted in a way that encourage use among those in the scholarly community as well as those who are just merely curious about this fascinating and multifaceted area of knowledge.
So what’s the story behind the collection?
The Psychoactive Substances Research Collection is the brainchild of Betsy Gordon, who intersected with the Northern California wellness scene in the 1980s, when she discovered holotropic breathwork, which influenced her life dramatically. Stanislav Grof, one of the founders of holotropic breathwork, was a pioneer in psychedelic research and employed them in his psychotherapy practice just as any other medicine prior to them becoming widely used and known recreationally. When Dr. Grof’s own papers were lost in a house fire, Betsy realized the importance of preserving documents pertaining to early psychedelic research. Other important archival collections, such as the papers of philosopher/ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, were also lost in a California wildfire, thus creating an impetus for a repository that could care for and preserve this important and unrecognized history. Purdue was one of a handful of institutions willing to take on this archival collecting effort. Purdue’s link to psychedelic research lies in the work of David Nichols, Professor Emeritus of Pharmacology, who did important work in helping facilitate the re-emergence of the psychedelic research which catalyzed in the 1990s. Betsy and Dave knew each other through the Heffter Research Institute, an organization that helps design and review scientific studies of the highest caliber with psychedelic compounds.
I’d love to hear about some of the successes? Some things you’re proud of?
There is nothing more gratifying than witnessing the trajectory of archival materials from their inactive use while still in the possession of the donor, to their transfer to archives and ultimately into the hands of scholars, where their work is referenced in publications such as books, journals, and presentations, further legitimizing this area of research.
And what about the opposite of successes? What kind of setbacks/challenges/problems have you encountered?
Educating others who may be skeptical about a controversial collecting area rife with historical baggage is challenging. And one must take great care when selecting appropriate materials and contextualizing them accordingly when working with students or creating displays.
On the flipside, it also takes time to earn the trust of potential donors of archival material. Purdue is an agriculture and engineering school in the Midwest that does not necessarily lean countercultural. And when donating collections, there are rules and forms and legalese, which can be viewed as unnecessarily cumbersome and even alienating to potential donors. Regardless, growing a substantial body of materials in such a niche subject area takes time and entails building relationships.
There are also nuts and bolts accessibility issues – some collections contain multitudes of confidential patient information which must be dealt with accordingly. And the controlled vocabulary that currently exists within our professional standards might not always be accurate or free from bias. (For example, the authorized heading for MDMA is “Ecstasy (Drug)” which incidentally has strong recreational connotations. “Experience Reports” are another tricky one…)
Do you have advice for researchers who visit?
In their thoughtful essay on “Stumbling in the Archives,” Lisa Mastrangelo and Barbara L’Eplattenier remind us of the basics: bring fascination, determination and patience. (And a sweater.)
For more on the Psychoactive Substances Collection, read David Korostyshevsky’s archive report here on Points.