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Welcome to the RCS Library & Surgical Information Services blog

28 Apr 2015

Thalia Knight & Dorothy Fouracre

The Barry Reading RoomIn February 2013 the Arts Council England formally Designated the RCS library, museums and archives as outstanding collections of national and international quality and significance. A succession of Wellcome Trust funded cataloguing projects (2002 to 2014) coupled with rising numbers of researchers and the success of the Hunterian Museum which has seen over 500,000 visitors since 2005, confirmed for us what we had already known: all the collections at the RCS form an intellectual whole. Together they tell the fascinating story of not only this College but of British Surgery.

Future blogposts will talk about what we do, our projects and feature items from the collections. Read on now to learn about a current, ground-breaking project written by one our Collections Review Assistants, Dorothy Fouracre.

Thalia Knight, Director of Library & Surgical Information Services

Barry Reading Room galleryOn the heels of winning the accolade of Designation we were successful in obtaining a grant from Arts Council England’s Designation Development Fund to carry out a pan-domain Collections Review. Working systematically through every box, shelf, cabinet and drawer of the College’s library, museum and archive collections, the project surveys their management, use, condition and significance. Across the domains every unit is appraised using the same scoring rubric, resulting in data that is directly comparable. This technique has never been attempted in libraries before, and poses some interesting challenges. Developing the process so that it is applicable across the most varied of collections forces you to define what, exactly, it means to manage any collection well, and think about the ways in which collections can be used more widely, and the links between them.

Postoperative Nervous Complications - Statistical reports for 1941-1964, Department of Anesthesiology, University of Wisconsin

As well as corroborating the importance of already-celebrated items or collections – Joseph Lister’s manuscript research papers, for example, or a copy of an otherwise unrecorded French translation of Aristotle’s Secreta Secretorum from 1490 – the review process has also been bringing some more unexpected matters to light. Surveying the library’s journal collection has revealed that it holds several titles not carried, as far as we can tell, by any other institution in the UK. This raises interesting questions in terms of collection management: could these items be another unique selling point for the College’s collections? Or if no other institutions have seen the value of retaining, for instance, a single 1922 issue of Oogheelkundig Jaarboek (a Dutch ‘Ophthalmic Yearbook’) or the statistical reports for 1941-1964 from the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Anesthesiology (above), why should RCS, either?

Fugitive sheet - Anatomie tres utile, Paris, par Jean de Gourmont, 1585

These questions are, of course, complicated by issues relevant to practically any collecting institution, including the collection’s previously limited discoverability, as it is only now being fully catalogued; the difficulties of recording usage in libraries, and much of the collection’s unknown provenance. These complications make it harder to ascertain the collection’s significance or potential usage. (Above: Fugitive sheet - Anatomie tres-utile, Paris, par Jean de Gourmont, 1585.)

Building plans

With 2,274 boxes of archive material, approximately 100,000 volumes of both historic and contemporary library books, pamphlets and periodicals, and around 54,000 museum collection items to assess, and halfway through its course, it seems clear that the project’s outcome will not only be a large dataset, but that it will also have implications for future collections management. The College’s ‘unique’ journals are small but significant proof that any data gathering exercise is not an end in itself, but rather just the start of a much larger process.

Find updates and images of re-discovered treasures from all the collections on the Hunterian Museum’s twitter account: @HunterianLondon #CollectionsReview.

Dorothy Fouracre, Collections Review Assistant

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