Increasing access to rare treasures

The Osler Library is a major resource for historical research in the health sciences.

Every occasion at the Osler Library of the History of Medicine is an opportunity for a new discovery to be made.

Opened in 1929 to house the collection of rare medical books donated by renowned physician Sir William Osler, the Library has grown to comprise approximately 100,000 titles. Its holdings include a number of unique, irreplaceable items, including the personal archives of some of the giants of medicine. It is one of the most renowned of McGill’s special library collections and one of the best of its type in the world.

“The central mission of the Library is to support scholarship,” explains Osler Librarian Christopher Lyons Supporting scholarship in medical research is inextricably tied to increasing access to the Osler Library’s resources. “Our footprint is bigger than our campus as a result,” he says.

The Mary Louise Nickerson Fellowship in Neuro History, established in 2011 by Granville H. Nickerson, MDCM’45, in honour of his late wife, enriches scholarship by enhancing access to the Neuro History archival and artifact collections – the heart of which is the Penfield Archive – and other resources available at the Osler Library, the Montreal Neurological Institute and the McGill University Archives.

A fellowship may seem a less obvious gift for a library than a rare acquisition, but it is just as significant. The first two Nickerson Fellows have each contributed to McGill scholarship, one through research into the cultural context of early neuroscience, and the other, through exploration into mid-20th century perceptions of epilepsy.

“If people want to do research in this area, they need to come here. And the Fellowship allows people to do research that they can’t do anywhere else,” says Lyons.

But this kind of research would not be possible without a highly prized – and ever expanding – collection. For instance, the Raymond Klibansky Collection in Rare Books and Special Collections preserves the nearly 7,000-volume personal library of the celebrated McGill philosophy professor. The late Klibansky’s wife, Dr. Ethel Groffier, DCL’72, who taught in the Faculty of Law for 25 years, has also supported the cataloguing and preservation of the collection and created an endowed fund to bring researchers to McGill to use it.

Rare does not mean inaccessible. McGill University does not regard the jewels of its rare book collection as suitable only for the eyes of distinguished scholars. “We’re not a museum, we’re a research centre,” says Dr. Richard Virr, director and curator of manuscripts at McGill’s Rare Books and Special Collections. “Ask for a medieval manuscript at a museum and they’re liable to call security; ask for one here and someone will bring it to you in a few minutes.”