Memories of our profession’s library

How time passes; how things change. That was the first thought that came to mind when I read (and somewhat unbelievingly reread) the announcement that the College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC Library is closing its door. Many memories came to mind, including that of my brief meeting with Dr W.D. Keith. He was the pioneer library organizer for the Vancouver Medical Association way back in the early 1900s. He told me that in 1906 he received a cheque for $50 from Sir William Osler (about $2000 in today’s currency) toward development of the library for the members of the Vancouver Medical Association. Sir Osler maintained that “There is no better index of the intellectual status of the profession in any town than the condition of its medical library.”[1] Over the years, the VMA library became almost too successful because doctors from all over the province used it. The VMA could not or did not want to finance that and approached the College to take the library over. In 1959, the College conducted a referendum to establish library services on a 2-year trial basis; 61% of doctors in the various medical districts approved. At the second referendum, a year-and-a-half later, 65% of respondents supported the service. A Library Committee was set up to be responsible to the College Board for its actions.

In 1962, as a 33-year-old general practitioner in North Vancouver, I was appointed to the Library Committee as one of five members. I don’t know how it came about, but I was delighted. The board chair was the Dr Elliott Harrison, who took us out to dinner before the somewhat irregularly held committee meetings. He took me by the hand, and before I knew it, I was reappointed to the committee repeatedly for the next 31 years, the final time as board chair for 10 years, making my stay with the library 41 years long. I retired from the board in 2001, still totally in love with the work the library was doing. During all those years, the library grew enormously, changed its physical location twice, and moved from mail delivery of books and journals to photocopying and the numerous other electronic devices of the times, all the while supporting individual requests and the UBC Faculty of Medine’s sophisticated continuing medical education programs. The library also became a distinguished member of the international community of medical libraries. During my marathon on the Library Committee, I followed Dr Elliott Harrison’s early advice: just get out of the way of our excellent librarians.

Mr C. William (Bill) Fraser was the head librarian for 30 years (1961–1991). Each year he traveled across the province to meet with doctors to hear comments about the library and adjust collections and facilities. He was a formidable presence at the College’s executive meetings while presenting our need for an increase in our yearly budget.[2]

Mr Jim Henderson stepped into the diminutive Bill Fraser’s huge shoes in 1991 for the next 11 years. During his tenure, over 40% of the province’s doctors made use of the library every year. The library was on the leading edge of using the powers of the computer. His presence in workshops was welcomed by privately practising doctors and hospital staff. He managed new initiatives such as Docline (interlibrary loan systems), MDconsult (an electronic resource to assist librarians in searching numerous medical texts online simultaneously to answer clinical questions), and among others, electronic transmission of requested articles and the online catalogue. (The cheeky library staff set the URL for the online catalogue as One of the most popular communications, Cites and Bytes, developed by librarian Ms Judy Neill, regularly provided articles selected by librarians on topics of current interest.[3]

One of my final actions as board chair was to invite Dr Karen MacDonell to take over as head librarian, and I regret not having the opportunity to work with her. During her term she formed the triumvirate of Ms Linda Einblau, Ms Judy Neill, and herself—a most formidable team. Their motto was “to serve your information needs, be it to satisfy curiosity, to feed an interest, or to provide the tools necessary to enhance your decision-making process.”[4]

As I write these lines while contemplating the 15 March 2024 closure date, I wonder what the future will bring. I think Karen MacDonell’s vision of a librarianless, wireless (possibly AI-operated) medical library service is realistic. I hope the Cites and Bytes feature will be saved.
—George Szasz, CM, MD

1.    Dick J, Harrison WE, Fraser CW, Williams DH. The medical library service of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia. Can Med Assoc J 1963;88:741-744.
2.    Henderson J. Colin William (Bill) Fraser, AHIP, FMLA, 1925-2005. J Med Libr Assoc 2006;94:240-241.
3.    Henderson J. Farewell. BCMJ 2002;44:434.
4.    Einblau L, MacDonell K, Neill J. Updates from the Medical Library Service. BCMJ 2003;44:557.

This post has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

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