By Paul Theerman, Library Director
Now “175 years young,” the NYAM Library is one of the most significant historical medical libraries in the world. In an earlier post, we looked at how we came to that position. Now I’d like to look to explore where we are now, and where we might go in the future.
Every good special collections library has a distinct identity, focused around its collections. This is ours: we are a research library holding medical and public health literature ranging from the earliest days of printing to the early years of the 21st century. Though formed by many forces, our collection now exists to serve the advanced academic humanities researcher in a variety of disciplines, chiefly the history of medicine and public health. Much of our collection is rare, such many of the books published before 1800, or the 6,000 journal runs found in fewer than four libraries throughout the country; some of it is unique, such as the Smith papyrus, the ancient Egyptian surgical text, and the 9th-century cookbook, Apicius’ De re culinaria. To support this identity, we continue to add to our collections, selectively, focusing on books and other materials that are not found locally, and may be rare nationally. This year so far, we have added seven rare and historical books, including a 17th-century treatise on the plague, an 18th-century book on retaining one’s reason into old age, and a 19th-century promotional pamphlet on curing chronic disease. Collecting physical books remains crucial. Not all the medical literature of the past has been digitized, and reading the bare information contained in the words of the text does not begin to exhaust the experience of learning from a physical book.
Supporting academic research into the collections is important. The Library awards two residential fellowships annually, the Audrey and William H. Helfand Fellowship and the Paul Klemperer Fellowship, each supporting a month’s work. Our application period for 2023 Fellowships just closed and our review committee is now working through the applications. Through our participation in the academic group, the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (CHSTM), we serve as a venue for their fellows as well, both short-term exploratory visits as well as longer term research trips.
Why support academic research? Historical scholars lay the groundwork and generate the ideas that will inform discussions in the years to come. The discipline of history provides a particular lens through which to understand our society today—and the role of medicine and public health in shaping society and being shaped by it, a central concern before the COVID-19 pandemic, brought even more sharply into relief since. Scholarly research may start in the rarefied atmosphere of academia, but that’s where concepts are developed and refined, and then honed through vigorous debate. As ideas emerge, they are picked up by thought leaders and informed citizens, and they help to shape the shared understanding and open debate of a healthy society. The Library does its part, not only in supporting academic scholars, but also in presenting their work: both our Fellows’ works-in-progress talks, part of their fellowship experience, and in lively series of more popular yet academically based talks . In 2018 we started the programmatic series Race and Health, followed in 2022 by Then and Now, pairing academic historians with public health researchers and policymakers, so that each may learn from the other, and the audience may learn from both.
What’s next for the Library in its support of academic work? Certainly continuing to add to the collections; and certainly continuing to award fellowships and welcome researchers. We will also continue our work behind-the-scenes: cataloging our holdings, so that everyone will know that we have them, and conserving our books, so that researchers of the future can use them too.
But the future should not be just more of the same! We want to support our academic researchers better going forward. How can we not just support individual researchers, but develop and sustain a creative intellectual community that can spark ideas and deepen understanding? How can we find the hidden voices in our collections, which have been smoothed over by the descriptive practices of the past? How can we supplement those voices now, by going beyond the printed word? These are all serious questions. Over the next decade, I hope we can dig more deeply and understand our collections better, to serve our users better. I hope we can find a way to support more research in our reading room, and even commission oral histories, as history starts just in the last moment.
The second great strand of the Library’s work is connecting the public with our collection. Our work is broad-based. Our practice of hosting school groups and providing tours goes back decades. While we had to pause this work during the pandemic, we then started “Virtual Visits”: online explorations of collection materials around a common theme. This past year, class visits have started up again in earnest, opening the worlds of the past through our books and images—for college students—while we offer everyone drop-in tours on the first Monday of each month.
Engaging with the physical book is important—for everyone, and for many reasons. In an increasingly digital world, we tend to think of facts, ideas, opinions, and images as disembodied—unmoored from the circumstances of production, distribution, and presentation—and therefore, mistakenly, as more authoritative. The reality of books (even acknowledging how books’ have their own ways of asserting authority) helps bring matters down to earth. Beyond that, books have a particular beauty. But this I mean not only the beauty of a well-crafted binding, or a pleasing or dramatic illustration, or a fine type-face—though I do mean those qualities, best appreciated with an authentic piece, not a facsimile, digital or otherwise. Part of the beauty of books comes rather from different qualities: its heft; a variety of different sizes of books; the thinness or thickness of the paper, and its quality, brightness, look, and feel; an exemplary job of printing and binding, or, alternately, signs of wear caused by generations of use; or even the gradual unfolding of the text as one turns from one page to the next—or bounces around, going forward and backward, engaging with the text physically while one engages with it intellectually. I should add: to appreciate the book is not to disparage the digital revolution—digital texts provide ways of advancing both intellectual and aesthetic life that are different from traditional books. In many ways digital books are better, but in many ways they are not—their experience is often “flatter.” As a society, we have room for both experiences of knowledge.
Libraries like the Academy’s are well-positioned to provide an exemplary experience of books and other library materials. Our collection is both deep and broad, even with its medical focus. And while many people may not have had an experience of a Renaissance-era oversize anatomical atlas, say, or 19th-century patent medicine ads, or 20th-century pamphlets on improving one’s health, because these materials are no longer common—well, we have them! Beyond this, though, current teenagers’ chief literary experience may well be digital, a trend that only promises to grow. We can provide students, and lifelong learners as well, with an experience not otherwise readily available: not just the book itself—though we can do that—and not just the content of the book—though we can do that, too—but also the deeper experience of understanding the book: how it came about, how it was used, how it’s made, and how it’s conserved. As other libraries empty their shelves and go all-digital, the Academy Library has an increasingly rare and valuable perspective to offer.
How can we do this better? We could engage more people in more ways. Digital products reach a broad swath of people and can draw them to the Library for an in-person experience. Hybrid models could be explored and exploited, for example marrying larger digital exhibits on expansive themes, with smaller physical displays and personal tours. We could explore taking our materials out to the community, rather than always asking people to come our way. We could make a concerted effort to find ways for all facets of society to encounter our collections. All these are possibilities, many of them being investigated and developed elsewhere. We should be actively exploring what works for us at the Academy Library.
I’m excited about the Academy Library, not just what we are doing now but what lies ahead of us. Keep connected and see what comes next!
On Wednesday, September 21, the Academy Library celebrates its achievements and looks to the future. Join us for a festive evening with a chance to meet the NYAM Library Team and explore a special display of some of our rare treasures. Register here.