Advocating for History of the Health Sciences Libraries and Librarians: A Position Paper by the History of the Health Sciences Section, Medical Library Association*

By Flannery, Michael A.; Holtum, Edwin et al. | Journal of the Medical Library Association, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Advocating for History of the Health Sciences Libraries and Librarians: A Position Paper by the History of the Health Sciences Section, Medical Library Association*


Flannery, Michael A., Holtum, Edwin, Porter, Suzanne, McClure, Lucretia W., Journal of the Medical Library Association


DOI: 10.3163/1536-5050.98.1.006

Introduction

The genesis of this article stems from the concern of the History of the Health Sciences Section of the Medical Library Association (MLA) over what we perceive to be erosion of an appreciation for and knowledge of history and medical humanities and the future of these historically based collections. This concern extends beyond university administrators to include the library profession itself. We are not alone in this concern. The American Association for the History of Medicine is similarly disquieted and has reacted recently to this unease by forming a committee to examine issues related to the future of medical history libraries [I]. Evidence to support the assertion that we have entered a period of professional amnesia can be found as close as our peerreviewed journal itself, where there has been a steady retreat of historical articles since the 1970s, with the trend continuing to the present.[dagger]

However, this is not to point fingers at editors. Editors cannot publish what they do not receive. Moreover, we believe the issue runs deeper and is rooted in professional amnesia over our own professional history, a profession that itself historically had included historical studies and historical collections management as an integral part of its interests and responsibilities. In this advocacy document, the authors will review the integral relationship between history and medical librarianship in the development of the profession, confirm the continuing relevance of this relationship as we continue to find new roles for medical librarians in the changing health curricula, and offer practical ways in which we can advocate for the history of the health sciences within our institutions and beyond.

Starting with our own professional history, beyond our association's original founders such as Margaret Ridley Charlton and George Milbry Gould, the role of William Osler was key in making history and medical humanities part of the MLA's organizational charge. As historian Jennifer Connor has observed in her Guardians of Medical Knowledge:

In general, where Gould - a selfconsciously cultured man himself - had pushed scientific communications as the means to transform moribund collections into active workshops, medical leaders afterward reclaimed the notion of humanism in medicine [emphasis added] to breathe life into collections of classical books as well... . The objective of these later leaders was to use the association to elevate and cultivate the medical profession, in part through reading and celebrating their medical heritage. They were deeply influenced in this respect by the association's second president, William Osier. Key participants in the society formed an intricate network of the medical elite through their relationships with Osier, their connections to the Association of American Physicians, and their roles as directors of medical libraries. [2]

Indeed, it was Osler who steered the newly formed association toward historical studies. The first periodical devoted to the history of medicine was also the official publication of the Association of Medical Librarians. The official journal of the association, The Medical Library and Historical Journal, begun in 1903, made the connection between medical libraries and history explicit. The early list of MLA officials reads like a who's who of American medical historians: Gould served on the board of the MLA and edited the Annals of Medical History (a journal established in 1917); later, Archibald Malloch, an MLA official, became the first editor of the Journal of the History of Medicine & Allied Sciences that was started in 1946; and other prominent MLA officials like Francis R. Packard, J. George Adami, Fielding H. Garrison, and Abraham Jacobi served in important positions in the history of medicine. Together, they helped create a culture of professionalism as well as scholarship in an emerging field that distinguished itself from other library specialties emerging contemporaneously from the work of Melvil Dewey, William Frederick Poole, and Justin Winsor. …

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