If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
This metaphysical riddle challenges our ideas about reality and perception and whether or not our knowledge of how something works exists in an unperceived existence. It is also viewed as a technical question: without ears present to hear a sound wave, how can it be heard?
For all the things collected in archives, it is common to not have the exact item a person is looking for. This is sometimes due to the fact that it is lost or destroyed while at other times it is a result of having likely never existed in the first place.
In these situations the researcher is more often than not challenged with the metaphysical task of pairing known reality with perception of existence. The task is to take the documents that do exist and seeing whether or not they support a proposed theory. It is the metaphysical equivalent of the tree falling in the forest riddle: If a decision is made, and there is no record in the archives, can it be documented?
A recent research question dealt with such a gap in documentation. The topic seemed straight forward: When was the first medical ethics course taught in the Medical School? Every clue moved the researcher further back into time with less and less solid documentation. Working backward from the 1980s, the researcher discovered bits and pieces of evidence that further shaped an undocumented reality. Student advocates, departmental politics, and curriculum planning all lead to the late 1960s and focused squarely on the origins of the Department of Family Practice.
Definitive documents defining the development of the course or its justification were never found, but the archives provided historical mile markers and contextual evidence for the researcher to elaborate on this unperceived existence.
One document found along the way was an incomplete, undated copy of a medical ethics laboratory manual written by Elof Nelson, a chaplain at Fairview Hospital and the course instructor in the 1970s. Only the first 45 pages of the approximately 200 page manual are available. The remaining likely exists but is not yet preserved in the archives. The manual describes medical ethics as “search and tentative discovery [rather] than indoctrination.” The same can be said about historical research.
Read the partial lab manual below. It includes the full table of contents so in this case we know what we are missing.