Special Libraries are, Well . . . Special

By Jennifer M. 

I am the librarian for the Hartford Medical Society (HMS) Historical Library, located in the sub-basement of UConn Health in Farmington, CT. According to Wikipedia, a special library is “a term for a library that is neither an academic, school, public or national library. Special libraries include corporate libraries, law libraries, medical libraries, museum libraries, news libraries, and nonprofit libraries.”

The HMS Historical Library was created as a lending library for the members of the Hartford Medical Society, founded in 1846. The purpose of the society was to promote collegiality, raise the status of allopathic physicians in mid-nineteenth century Hartford, and provide for their continuing education. There was a robust acquisitions budget for over 100 years, and the society librarian was a practicing physician until 2009, when I was hired. Consequently, the library is a snapshot of roughly 150 years of profound change in the practice of medicine. Because some of its members were bibliophiles, the HMS collection also has works that are unique (archival materials) and works from the 18th, 17th and even the 16th centuries.

Any age has its popular theories and current trends. We like to think that the direction is always towards true progress and the betterment of mankind. A special library of this sort is necessary as a corrective. Progress is not straightforward. Some theories have their 15 minutes of fame, only to be proved dead wrong. Others are wrong, but lead to better theories. Discovery is a messy process, and the adoption of new ideas even more so.

When I am in a special library such as this one, I am humbled by the creative effort represented in its holdings but I also hope these materials will help prevent us from repeating the mistakes of the past. We will, of course, create our own modern mistakes. In this new digital world, let us strive to still have special libraries. They document our very human frailties, along with our discoveries.

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