A Day in the Life at UNMC

Dr. Wolfensberger kept everything, gave even more

The McGoogan Library's Cameron Boettcher is tasked with unpacking, archiving, organizing, digitizing and otherwise curating the massive collection of Wolf Wolfensberger, Ph.D. (Photos by Rich Watson, UNMC Public Relations)
The McGoogan Library’s Cameron Boettcher is tasked with unpacking, archiving, organizing, digitizing and otherwise curating the massive collection of Wolf Wolfensberger, Ph.D. (Photos by Rich Watson, UNMC Public Relations)

When young Wolf Wolfensberger escaped Nazi Germany for Denmark, then later immigrated to the United States, he took a few things with him.

For the rest of his life, he kept them.

Turns out, he kept everything.

Turns out, he gave everything.

Wolf Wolfsensberger, Ph.D., was an extraordinary man. He came to America. He educated himself. He was a researcher at the former Nebraska Psychiatric Institute from 1964 to 1971, and a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry, of what would become UNMC, during his time here. Over the course of his career, he became a world-renowned advocate for and expert on the care of the developmentally disabled.

“He revolutionized services for people with disabilities,” Mike Leibowitz, Ph.D., director of Munroe-Meyer Institute, said.

Said a UNMC release: In 1999, he was selected by representatives of seven major mental retardation organizations as one of 35 individuals worldwide who had the greatest impact on mental retardation in the 20th century.

During a period when the developmentally disabled were routinely shifted off to institutions, literally cast off from society, he recognized their humanity. He insisted they be treated as citizens, as people. He realized that not only could they benefit from living in regular society, they could contribute to that society.

When he founded ENCOR, the Eastern Nebraska Community Office on Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, “those were the first community based programs in this country,” Dr. Leibowitz said.

To say that he fought for these people is not an understatement. There were debates with other “experts” in his field, he once said, “which almost digressed to physical violence.”

He gave everything.

Check out the walls and walls of files. The collection itself takes up 1,584 square feet.
Check out the walls and walls of files. The collection itself takes up 1,584 square feet.

We know he gave everything because he kept everything. All of it, just about anything he ever read, wrote, said or thought. He saved it all. Dr. Wolfensberger was a person who made your everyday pack rat look like a piker. He didn’t just keep notes to himself scribbled on scratch paper. He kept notes – sometimes unrelated to one another – he’d scribbled on both sides of scratch paper. On napkins. Everything. A publication celebrating his career noted his collection even included “a history of institutions through postcards.”

The sheer volume of it all is staggering.

Dr. Wolfensberger had worked at a number of places. After he died in 2011, most of these places looked at his collection and wanted some of it. But only one of them wanted all of it.

The UNMC McGoogan Library of Medicine stepped forward: Munroe-Meyer Institute, the Nebraska Developmental Disabilities Council and UNMC collaborated to make possible taking it all. All the scratch paper. All the boxes. All the books. All the items and trinkets. A lifetime’s worth of stuff.

Among the collection, the passion of a man’s life’s work is palpable.

Now, it is 2014, and another man is combing through it. Another man is starting to feel that passion seeping into his bones. Another man may be finding his life’s work.

Of all the rarities within Dr. Wolfensberger’s collection, Cameron Boettcher believes he has found the rarest of them all.

“A history major with a job,” Boettcher said, and grinned. That would be him.

This is his job. This collection. All this stuff. Wolf Wolfensberger. Boettcher spreads his arms and smiles, the wonder of it all washing over him. He is home. He ducks his head and gets back to work.

Boettcher has put his own stamp on the collection. One needs to keep his sense of humor when taking on a job this big.
Boettcher has put his own stamp on the collection. One needs to keep his sense of humor when taking on a job this big.

Boettcher, a library assistant in the McGoogan Library of Medicine, tackles his task with a young man’s enthusiasm and a novice’s wide eyes and bursting heart. This is new to him. All of it. Wolf Wolfensberger? Never heard of him. Is that even a real person?

The treatment of the developmentally disabled. A few short months ago, he knew next to nothing. Now?

“Did you know …?!” he will begin, before launching into indignities from decades past.

The passion is seeping into Boettcher’s bones.

It’s all here. Over there, half a small library’s worth of bookshelves. Their contents? Some, seem obvious. Others … a Danielle Steele romance novel? A Dungeons and Dragons adventure fantasy? Each book has tucked within it a sheet of paper, neatly typewritten. Dr. Wolfensberger’s thoughts on what he’d read. His own synopsis, what it meant to him. What a word on page 236 might have meant to those for whom he spent a lifetime working. Every book has a summary; why he kept it.

Why he kept everything.

There were 35 filing cabinets. Hundreds of boxes; 450 boxes, in fact, containing books, monographs, papers, artifacts, recording tapes, CDs, journals and photographs. There were 4,550 books and monographs, 598 journal volumes, and thousands of file folders.

The collection itself takes up 1,584 square feet. “The size of a house!” McGoogan Library head of special collections John Schleicher said.

Among Dr. Wolfensberger's rarities, a series on Nazi atrocities.
Among Dr. Wolfensberger’s rarities, a series on Nazi atrocities.

Over here there’s a shelf filled with what Boettcher calls “a Ph.D. in a box.” Dr. Wolfensberger had done all the research on a certain topic, written it up, and then, just filed it away. Never published it. Never did anything with it. Just, a Ph.D.’s worth of work, here. In a box. There are several of them.

Boettcher has met with members of Dr. Wolfensberger’s family, great people. Grateful people. Grateful that all of this has found a home, a home that will treat it like the treasure it is. Grateful that home isn’t theirs. Dr. Wolfensberger would send his kids to garage sales, when they were younger, armed with lists of rare things he was on the lookout for. His daughter remembers, when she was a girl, her nightstand piled high with her father’s books, so full was their house with all this stuff.

Why save it? Was the man just a hoarder? No, Boettcher said, going through it all now, it’s clear it was more than that.

“I think he knew he was important,” he said. Dr. Wolfensberger knew what he was doing mattered, would matter. Still matters today.

Boettcher hooked on to the McGoogan Library as an intern. Then, he was a temporary worker. He liked the work. He was a history major with a job. Then, as the acquisition of the Wolfensberger collection came together, they asked him. Would he like to work here, at UNMC? Would he like to do this?

He would. He absolutely would.

Now, this is what he does. Wolf Wolfensberger. UNMC has sent him to archivists’ training. He’s in this stuff every day, waist-deep. The goal is to wade through it, to move and organize and digitize, to sift this vast collection into something the public can appreciate. To go through these books and boxes and napkins and postcards and scraps of paper and make the genius within available. So the world can see who Wolf Wolfensberger was, what he did and what his work meant.

Combing through it all, Boettcher finds himself living a Bob Seger lyric: What to leave in/what to leave out …

“I get to decide what the world gets to see,” he said. “Right now it’s all in a back room, 50 years of advances for the developmentally disabled.”

Boettcher began knowing nothing about Dr. Wolfensberger or his work, but in going through it has discovered a new passion.
Boettcher began knowing nothing about Dr. Wolfensberger or his work, but in going through the collection, has discovered a newfound passion.

Here comes the passion again. Because of Dr. Wolfensberger’s efforts, Boettcher said, people who otherwise would have been shipped to institutions are now in classrooms, working, living lives.

The collection, “a unique, one-of-a-kind resource without parallel in the academic world,” retired library director Nancy Woelfl, Ph.D., said.

“Having that collection provides an amazing opportunity for students across all of our colleges,” Dr. Leibowitz said.

Boettcher looked out over the collection again. He shook his head and grinned. It’s amazing. Wolf Wolfensberger. That man kept everything.

He gave even more.

Leave a Reply


9 − five =

One thought on “Dr. Wolfensberger kept everything, gave even more

  • I am a volunteer in the archives at mcgoogan and this caught my eye. Very well written. Very enthusiastically written, which is great to make people aware of this work and get them interested in it too.