The Academy Library at 175

By the NYAM Library Team

Over the last 175 years, the Academy Library has built one of the premier medical collections in the United States, expanded its reach beyond the Academy to the world, and reinvented its mission.

Dr. Isaac Wood inscribed his donation of Dr. Martyn Paine’s Medical and Physiological Commentaries (1840),
the Library’s first acquisition.

Set up at the Academy’s founding in 1847 to support the Fellows’ continuing education, the Library sought to build a collection of the latest medical books and journals. The first item in its collection was Dr. Martyn Paine’s Medical and Physiological Commentaries (1840), followed by many more, growing to over 200,000 volumes today. The centerpiece of the medical library, though, was the medical journal, the avenue to the most up-to-date medical thinking. The Library’s journal collections comprise some 22,000 different journals, published on every continent except Antarctica, in dozens of languages. Collecting was extensive: the journals take up six floors of stacks; both books and journals number over 550,000 volumes. In addition, the Library has collected hundreds of thousands of pamphlets—a favorite 19th– and early 20th-century format—as well as 275,000 medically related illustrations. By the 1950s, the Academy Library was one of the largest medical libraries in the country.[1]

In 1878, the Academy opened the Library to the public, and began to serve not just the Fellows, but also the larger medical community, inquisitive citizens, and historical researchers. By the turn of the 20th century, we were seen as complementing the New York Public Library; our scope reached beyond the city to the tri-state region. By the middle of the 20th century, our range expanded to the nation and beyond, as the Library became part of broader networks of libraries—medical and otherwise—that made our resources available to everyone. U.S. medical libraries coordinated their efforts under the leadership of the National Library of Medicine (which Academy Library director Janet Doe helped organize in its present form). The NYAM Library began to participate in the nationwide medical interlibrary system through NLM’s DOCLINE and, as one of NLM’s Regional Medical Libraries, organized training and outreach efforts for the medical libraries of the northeast. The digital revolution made this expansion possible—the same revolution that now brings medical information to people’s home computers.

In the 1990s, like many other leading medical libraries, we took on innovative projects to use the internet to collect new forms of medical information and to reach audiences in new ways. The Library was one of the founders of NOAH (New York Online Access to Health Information), started in 1994 as an early effort to present accurate medical information online. In 1999 it started the Grey Literature Report, an online database gathering and indexing the rarely-collected studies and articles published by foundations and other nonprofits. Through these and many other projects, the Library moved with the times. Even so, as medical books and especially journals moved into the digital realm, and as access to this literature increasingly came through medical schools and hospitals, the NYAM Library found its primary mission supplanted. People got their medical information elsewhere.

In 1909, Sir William Osler (1849–1919), the most famous physician of his day, donated the world’s most famous medical book, Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (1543).

Alongside the Library’s mission to provide up-to-date medical information was its promotion of history. From the late 19th century, the Library began to collect the classics of medicine, supporting the public persona, in the words of John Harley Warner, “of the clinician who embodied not only the precision of [the] scientist but also the sensibility of the gentleman,” seeing history “as a wellspring of connectedness.”[2] The Library’s rare book collection grew from donations and exchanges, including among esteemed physician-collectors, such as Sir William Osler and Academy Librarian Dr. Archibald Malloch. A series of remarkable gifts and purchases in the mid-20th century greatly expanded the Academy’s unique and rare holdings: the Edward Clark Streeter Collection of rare medical books, with many from the 15th century; the Margaret Barclay Wilson collection of food and cookery, which brought the 9th-century manuscript cookbook the Apicius to the Library; the Robert Levy collection on 17th-century physician William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood; the Fenwick Beekman collection on 18th-century Scottish surgeon John Hunter; and perhaps the most valuable of the Library’s holdings, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian work on wounds from about 1600 BCE, the oldest known surgical text in the world. Manuscript and archival collections, such as the Michael M. Davis papers on medical economics, supported historical research as well.

The Rare Book and History Room shortly after it opened in 1933. Since 2012, the room is known as the Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room.

The Academy’s new 1926 building provided dedicated spaces for rare books, and medical history and bibliography; the Academy’s 1933 addition created the Rare Book and History Room for study and seminars, designed after an Elizabethan library. From 1930 on, the Library published its History of Medicine book series, which concluded in 1989 after 53 volumes. Public lectures, some radio-broadcast, explored historical topics. Starting in 1996, the Library hosted a residential fellowship in the history of medicine and public health, and three years later added a second. As that field developed, historians expanded their focus from classic texts to the full panoply of medicine and public health.

In 2022, the Library mounted a new event series, Then & Now, using the insights of history to shed light on current issues in public health.

As our in-person medical users began to drop away, the Library refocused its efforts to history, building on its premier collections and its century-long work in the history of medicine and public health. The Library’s general collections, the product of over 150 years of active collecting, were now valued for their historical potential. In the first decades of the 21st century, the Library stopped collecting current medical literature and made history its primary mission. Its Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health opened in 2012, mounting public programs that use history to engage the public around issues of health and medicine.

As the Library looks to the future, we embrace our mission of serving the Academy, the city, the nation, and beyond, preserving the heritage of medicine, and promoting historical understanding. We invite you to join us!

The Academy Library has reworked and expanded its timeline of milestones. Please check it out to learn more of our 175-year history.


References

[1] The Library of the Surgeon General’s Office of the U.S. Army was the largest, which in 1956 became the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

[2] John Harley Warner, “The Fielding Garrison Lecture: The Aesthetic Grounding of Modern Medicine,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 88 (2014): 1–47. The first quotation is from pp. 23–24, the second from p. 22, paraphrasing Sir William Osler.

This entry was posted in Academy history, Announcements, Collections and tagged , , by nyamhistory. Bookmark the permalink.

About nyamhistory

The Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, part of the Academy Library, promotes the scholarly and public understanding of the history of medicine and public health. Established in 2012, the Center aims to build bridges among an interdisciplinary community of scholars, educators, clinicians, curators, and the general public. The Center bases its work on the Library's historical collections, among the largest in this field in the United States and open to the public since 1878.

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