The Development of Education for Medical Librarianship

By Doe, Janet | Journal of the Medical Library Association, October 2013 | Go to article overview

The Development of Education for Medical Librarianship


Doe, Janet, Journal of the Medical Library Association


A description of the development of education for medical librarianship can be brief indeed. Such education has been almost wholly the old apprenticeship method of learning on the job, until within a very few years. Medical libraries seem to have existed apart from ordinary library currents almost up to the present time, and are only just beginning to be drawn into the main stream. The cause lies probably in the difference in the evolution of medical librarians and of general librarians. )

In medicine, the books existed first, producing eventually the need for a librarian. General librarians undoubtedly began in this way, too, but they have for a long time now attained a point in development where the librarian comes first and is often engaged to produce and organize a bookcollection into a library. This latter stage is now being reached in the medical library world, but it is just barely starting. It is still seldom that one hears of a medical librarian in search of a library: it is nearly always the medical books that are in search of a librarian!

In medicine, collections of books for the use of students and practitioners were a necessity from the earliest times. Until the late nineteenth century, they formed the comparatively small working collections cared for by some responsible soul among the users who valued his literary tools enough to try to keep them in order. Some of these workers became the great bibliographers of science, scholars like Gesner and Haller. The rank and file, however, were the physicians who used the books in their daily practice, in their teaching, or for their recreation. Their care was either a labor of necessity or of love.

Most such collections were comparatively small private ones until the freshet of medical periodical publishing started gushing in the middle of the nineteenth century. The gathering volume resulted in the pooling of literary wealth by groups of individuals, and thus the medical society libraries and some of the older hospital medical libraries came into being. These collections were still small by present standards, and in only occasional instances acquired the full-time attention of a caretaker. Most of them doubtless maintained the same sort of precarious existence which an unattended departmental library still does, new books being supplied by the authorities fairly regularly and being just as regularly drained off by nonchalant borrowers who neglected to return them.

In spite of these adverse circumstances, collections began to become sizable, and took more time than even a book-loving medical man could spare; by the last quarter of the century, the physician-librarian had become only the titular head of the library while to the physician's secretary had been turned over the technical and physical chores of the now firmly established library. Small collections in hospitals, especially, would be cared for by a secretary in her spare time, or by the record-room assistant- a condition still obtaining frequently today. And as the collections grew larger and more staff was required, it was normally drawn from sources with which the medical authorities, who were the owners, were familiar: their secretarial or technical assistants-though there were, of course, occasional exceptions in librarians coming from among the physician-users themselves, like John Shaw Billings and Fielding H. Garrison.

By the end of the century, then, we find that the medical profession had developed its individual book collections into more or less formal libraries supported by groups or institutions, whose moving-spirits were the medical men themselves and whose technical workers were recruited from the clerical services auxiliary to medicine. This was the situation at the time of the founding, in 1898, of the Medical Library Association. Its charter members numbered four physicians, Dr. George M. Gould, Dr. John L. Rothrock, Dr. E. H. Brigham, and Dr. William Browning, and four librarians, Miss Margaret R. …

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