Archivist Kathy Heilman Sets the Record Straight on Geisinger History
Jan 28, 2015 11:12AM ● Published by Erica Shames
Kathy Heilman’s official title is collections specialist in the Geisinger Health Systems Library, but it might as well be Geisinger historian. Whenever anyone needs historical facts about the 100 years since Abigail Geisinger opened George F. Geisinger Memorial Hospital, they call upon Heilman.
That includes Donald Housley, the retired Susquehanna University history professor who authored the 2012 book, “Make It the Best: A History of Geisinger Health System 1912-2001.” While conducting research for his book, the author understandably asked Heilman a lot of questions and guidance on where to find important historical evidence.
That experience ultimately proved to be a mutually-beneficial relationship.
“An archival database was created in-house five or six years ago. Dr. Housley arranged to have a Susquehanna history student work for a summer on inputting data,” Heilman said. “The following summer, my grandson, Matthew Lorimer, did a lot of scanning for the database. I’ve also had additional help from other library staff members and a volunteer. Library management and administration have been very supportive and aware of the importance of maintaining Geisinger’s history.”
Heilman says there are now over 12,000 records in the database and at least two-thirds of them are individual photographs – many of them provided by the Biomedical Communications department. In addition to managing that database and a related internal history website, Heilman maintains the Geisinger archives at three locations – the Health Sciences Library, the archives room in the Foss Home, and in three rooms at Cabinet Industries on Railroad Street in Danville. Donations from Geisinger employees, retirees and departments, as well as the public, have added to the inventory.
The archives have expanded greatly with Geisinger’s expansion during Heilman’s 33 years. Two years after being initially hired as a library cataloger – a job she still does half the time – she was asked if she wanted to take on the archival work when Thelma Feeman passed away. Feeman had been hired in 1930 as Geisinger’s first medical librarian.
Heilman relished the new opportunity.
“Research has always been my thing,” she said. “I love history and organizing as a cataloger, so I thought this would be a convenient match.”
But it wasn’t a really pleasant job at first. She soon learned that the majority of the archives were housed in less-than-ideal conditions in a closet behind Geisinger Medical Center’s Hemelright Auditorium.
“When I walked in there, it was a disaster,” she said. “An overhead pipe had leaked at some point and everything had a layer of dust. I’ve always said you have to expect to get dirty in this job.”
In the process of getting dirty, Heilman has cleaned up the archives and preserved Geisinger’s historical artifacts in more secure locations. While she can’t tell you where all of the system’s history may be buried, she can tell you where the time capsule from the initial hospital was buried, where it’s kept now, and what’s inside.
Heilman says the archives continue to be her favorite part of her job. And that part has seen considerably more traffic through projects related to Geisinger’s centennial celebration.
She’s already put together two historical displays in the Abigail Entrance lobby at GMC and she’s working on another display for the opening of the new Laboratory Medicine Building later this year. She is also filling numerous centennial-related requests for historical information.
Because of her Geisinger historical knowledge, Heilman may have a better feel for founder Abigail Geisinger than anyone. And in her opinion, she believes Abigail would be pleased to lend her name to what her initial community hospital has now become.“She’d be happy that the health care is still meeting the needs of the local people and making it more than she ever imagined,” Heilman said. “Abigail Geisinger wanted to ‘Make my hospital the best,’ and history shows that others have come after her to work towards that goal.”