UCLA researchers digitize massive collection of folk medicine

The Archive of Healing aims to democratize knowledge about wellness and health
Stock photo of items related to folk medicine

A project more than 40 years in the making, the Archive of Healing is one of the largest databases of medicinal folklore from around the world. UCLA Professor David Shorter has launched an interactive, searchable website featuring hundreds of thousands of entries that span more than 200 years, and draws from seven continents, six university archives, 3,200 published sources, and both first and second-hand information from folkloric field notes.

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 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 40 years by former UCLA professors Wayland 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 more than 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.