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Library History

In April 1836 an anonymous reviewer, writing in The Lancet, bewailed the general lack of serious medical libraries in Britain, and especially in London. He commented:

"The library of the College of Surgeons when open, [it was closed for rebuilding at that point] was, with the exception, perhaps, of Radcliffe's library in Oxford, and the Library of the Medical Society in Edinburgh, the best in this country."

[Vol. II, 1835-36, p. 151]

By the close of the 19th century, it was widely recognised that the Royal College of Surgeons possessed one of the finest medical science library collections in Europe. A survey of The Medical Libraries of London carried out by W.R.B Prideaux (The Library Association Records, September 1906) ranks the library of the College as second in size and importance (with c.50,000 volumes) to the Library of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society (c.60,000 volumes). The latter society became the better known Royal Society of Medicine in 1907.

During the 20th century the College library continued to collect in the fields of surgery, dental surgery, pathology, physiology and anatomy, though in recent years the emphasis has shifted towards the core subjects of surgery and dental surgery. The College has invested in providing its library with a state of the art automated library management system to enable it to provide the catalogue online. Surgical information is made available on site via the Lumley Study Centre and, increasingly, licensed content such as electronic journals and access to medical databases is being made available via the members' area of the website.

The 19th century

Robert Willis, first librarian in 1828

Robert Willis was appointed as first librarian to the College in 1828, and Richard Owen was called in to help Clift in the museum.

Between 1834 and 1836, not long after the opening of the Library, the College was rebuilt by Sir Charles Barry. The elegant splendour of the reading room - which was extended in 1887 through the generous benefaction of Sir Erasmus Wilson - survives today as a living link with those early years.

When the College was hit by an incendiary bomb in 1941, it was thanks to the strength of the cast iron fire doors of the Library that the front of the College survived at all.

Willis carried out his duties with industry and vision until his retirement in 1845. He arranged books in subject groups and not only completed the author catalogues but recast them into a complete classified catalogue, which was printed in 1842. By the middle of the 19th century, the Library was described as follows in Charles Dickens' magazine, Household Words: 

"The library is a noble, large room, of excellent proportions, occupying the whole length in front, having tall plate-glass embayed windows, each with its table and chair; and, in each of which, the passers-by in Lincoln's Inn Fields may generally see a live surgeon framed and glazed, busily occupied with his books, or still more busily helping to keep up the tide of gossip for which the place is celebrated. For some twenty feet from the floor on all sides the walls are lined with books. Above this, and just under the handsomely panelled roof, hang portraits of old surgeons, each famous in his time."

[Charles Dickens (1850) Household Words (1), p.464]

Thomas Stone and John Chatto

Unfortunately, no successor was appointed to Willis. A period of stagnation ensued during which as first Thomas Stone and then John Chatto struggled to keep the Library going.

In 1853 Chatto was appointed as librarian, but did not receive any assistance for 34 years; at last, a year before his death at the age of 78, he was given an assistant to help him compile a printed catalogue of the Library.

That assistant was Charles Hewitt who was subsequently appointed the first librarian of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1907.

James Blake Bailey

By April 1887, when Chatto died, the library collection had doubled to almost 40,000 books, but its arrangement was chaotic.

Council realised that it needed a trained librarian and chose James Blake Bailey, who had been trained at the Radcliffe Science Library in Oxford and was then Librarian of the Medico-Chirurgical Society. Hewitt continued as Bailey's assistant, and was joined by Arthur Fusedale, who served the College for 50 years.

Bailey refashioned the Library within a decade and reorganised it to fit the extra space added by the College, thanks to a generous bequest by Sir Erasmus Wilson, a former President of the College and regarded as the father of modern dermatology.

The printed catalogue was discontinued, and Bailey began a card catalogue that is still in use today for all pre-1850 material not yet transferred to computerised records. Bailey pioneered the move to card catalogues at a time when few libraries had them. He then produced a separate list of the periodicals in the Library - the first such list of medical periodicals printed in this country - which demonstrated that the College owned one of the best collections of medical and scientific periodicals in Europe.

Chatto had proposed indexing the periodicals, but Bailey pointed out that an effort to index medical periodicals (the forerunner to Index Medicus) was already under way in the United States.

Bailey also interested himself in the College's fine furniture and clocks and made sure they were in good repair. Sadly, he died at the age of 48 in 1897.

The 20th century

Victor Plarr

There then followed another period of stagnation, particularly after Hewitt left to join the newly renamed Royal Society of Medicine in 1907. Victor Plarr, Librarian of King's College, London, succeeded Bailey.

Plarr is chiefly remembered today for the Lives of the Fellows - the compilation of biographies of Fellows of the College, which is still updated and published today.

William Le Fanu

Plarr's death in 1929, the Council created the post of Honorary Librarian especially for Sir D'Arcy Power, a past Vice-President, who was distinguished as both surgeon and historian.

A few months later, William Le Fanu was appointed as assistant to Sir D'Arcy. At last modern methods began to be introduced - a typewriter and telephone were provided, the Council made available adequate storage space and the great collection of periodicals was properly arranged in 1937.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, the contents of the Library were evacuated to Downton Castle in Shropshire, thereby escaping the bomb that damaged the rest of the College in 1941.

The Library was the one great educational asset of the College that survived the Second World War. Unfortunately, the years immediately after the war were again difficult, as the number of library staff was reduced and even the typewriter was requisitioned.

Thanks to the efforts of Le Fanu, with the support of the great Sir Geoffrey Keynes (who had succeeded Sir D'Arcy Power as Honorary Librarian) and of Council, the Library was included in the rebuilding and redevelopment of the College in the 1950s and was able to provide a revitalised service to the College.

Eustace Cornelius & Ian Lyle

Le Fanu retired in 1968 after a most distinguished career during the course of which he became known internationally in the field of medical librarianship. Eustace Cornelius was then appointed Librarian, having served as Le Fanu's assistant since 1948 and helped in the post-war reconstruction.

He served as Librarian for 18 years until he retired in 1986, although he continued undaunted thereafter in his work for the Lives of the Fellows. Samuel Wood, who worked in the Library for a record 70 years, was also a familiar figure.

During the 1970s and into the 1980s the Library was heavily used by the staff and resident students of the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences and subsequently the Hunterian Institute.

Medicine in general, and surgery in particular, evolved dramatically after the Second World War. Keeping up with the changes became increasingly difficult, as the number of published journal articles grew exponentially. In 1966, the paper volumes of Index Medicus were computerised and medical librarians all over the world dialled into a database held at the United States' National Library of Medicine in Maryland.

Today, the medical profession takes for granted the availability of Medline over the Internet, and electronic versions of journals are commonplace.

Ian Lyle, who took over as Librarian when Cornelius retired, shared in those times, having been appointed to the staff in 1966. Lyle served as Librarian from 1986 until ill health obliged him to retire in 1997, and he died in 1998. The latter part of his tenure saw sweeping changes in the College following the closure of the Hunterian Institute, which resulted in the setting up of the Lumley Study Centre. 

The modern library

The Lumley Study Centre

By the late 1980s, the College had already begun to set a course for itself that was to have major consequences for the Library. A working party was set up in 1990-91 to look into Library services after closure of the Hunterian Institute. It was decided to provide a separate study facility for surgeons-in-training, and the Lumley Study Centre was conceived. Hand in hand with the development of the Education Department and the changes in education for surgeons, the educational resources team identified a need for a supporting study centre to contain training materials in a variety of formats. The purpose of the Centre was to be continuing professional education. Users were to have access to interactive multi-media and audio-visual programs, databases, books and journals.

Council agreed to the proposal and in December 1994 Richard Lumley and Henry Lumley, the chief benefactors, formally opened the Lumley Study Centre. In 1997, a generous donation from the Worshipful Company of Barbers funded a new enquiry desk, the lower floor was re-shelved, and the Centre was connected to the College network.

Keeping pace with Information Technology

In July 1995, Council agreed to automate the Library catalogue. In 1998, three-and-a-half years after the Lumley Study Centre was opened, the College cabling was upgraded and new computers replaced the old.

Today the Library encompasses a wide variety of services and brings together modern information resources with the archive and historical collections housed within its walls. A continuing programme of conservation helps keep the Library's resources in good condition for future users.

Thalia Knight took office as College Librarian in June 1998 and was charged with reintegration of the Library and Lumley Study Centre services. A five-year development plan was produced with the aim of providing Library, archive and information services to the highest professional standards to all its Fellows, Members, trainees, administrative staff of the College and to scholars of surgical history.

Library and Surgical Information Services

In 2003, the Library began to provide electronic journals to members. In 2010, following a review of the service which highlighted its value to members, the electronic journal collection was expanded by 100%, and continues to grow, to meet the training and development needs of surgeons throughout their professional career. To highlight this focus on current information, the Library was renamed Library and Surgical Information Services, and the management of the archives transferred to the new Museums and Archives department.

Users now have access to services and information from their homes and offices via the Internet as well as at the College. The Library will support life-long education and training of surgeons, as well as preserve the record of surgical history.

In the words of William Le Fanu, it will be an enduring memorial of human achievement, from which successive generations can draw instruction and inspiration.

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