Libraries, the universe and everything

The New York Academy of Medicine
October 7, 2013, 17:15
Filed under: Libraries | Tags: ,

A chance glimpse of an online advertisement last week alerted me to the rather wonderful one-day Festival of Medical History being held a the New York Academy of Medicine last weekend. (Sadly I have only just discovered that this event was part of the city-wide Archives Week and am unable to attend any of the other events which appeal in the listings, but never mind.)

The NYAM was founded in 1847 along the principles of learned societies elsewhere, and continues today as a non-profit organisation working to improve urban health. They have an excellent library collection covering the history of medicine and the development of medical practice and publishing in the USA. This has been recommended to me a number of times recently, but is only open to researchers by appointment, so I was delighted to be able to join one of their tours (description lifted directly from the event guide):

Introduction to the Rare Book Collections & the Gladys Brooks Book and Paper Conservation Lab 
Go on a guided tour of the Romanesque Revival structure, built in 1925–1926. Get an introduction to our collections with Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections, and Rebecca Pou, Archivist, including the chance to see some of our rare medical books up close. Get a behind-the-scenes tour of our book and paper conservation laboratory with lab head and conservator Erin Albritton, senior conservator Anne Hillam, and conservator Christina Amato. 

Books on display included Vesalius’ De corporis humani fabrica (with its wonderful engravings), a couple of original hand-coloured copies of Culpeper’s herbal and a fascinating display of student notebooks and admission tickets to medical lectures in the 1870s. The conservation studio was as bright and interesting as such places usually are, and we were given a brief introduction to sewing techniques and the opportunity to look at a couple of item undergoing conservation work. We also saw a facsimile of George Washington’s lower dentures, and (much more excitingly for me) one of only two known surviving copies of the ninth century cookbook, Apicus’ De Re Coquinaria.

Due to other commitments we were unable to devote as much time to the wide-ranging lecture programme as we would have liked, and only managed to attend a single presentation. This wasn’t quite what we expected (although on reflection I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting to begin with), but was nevertheless an engaging and through-provoking 30 minutes. In very brief summary, it used the biography and literary output of J.G. Ballard as a lens through which to survey literature from Grey’s Anatomy to pathology reports; I think the main take-home points were that poetry can be found in otherwise functional writing, and that real life can be considerably stranger than fiction. In the words of the brochure:

Gray Matter: The Obscure Pleasures of Medical Libraries
Medical libraries such as the New York Academy of Medicine’s offer ready access to a motherlode of “invisible literature,” the SF novelist J.G. Ballard’s term for medical textbooks, scientific journals, technical manuals, and other gray matter. Although it comprises a veritable galaxy in the universe of print media, invisible literature is nowhere to be found in general-interest bookstores, and is never reviewed in mainstream book pages for the simple fact that no one, not even the specialists who are its intended audience, thinks of this stuff as literature in the literary sense of the word. But what if we did?
[Speaker Mark Dery is a cultural critic. His latest book is the essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams.]

The NYAM collection is well worth a visit, and I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to learn a little about it. Dery’s lecture has also prompted me to look at grey literature in a whole new way, bringing a fresh dimension to material which I’ve always regarded of one of the duller aspects of library collections. With his words fresh in my mind, I was extremely tempted to entitle this post “Apicus, anatomy and autoeroticism”, but as you can see I chickened out!


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