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Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London

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Historical note

The Wellcome Library derives from the collecting activities of Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936) co-founder of the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome & Co, founded in 1880 and incorporated in 1924 as The Wellcome Foundation Ltd. (now absorbed into Glaxo Smithkline). The Library is maintained by the Wellcome Trust, the medical research charity established after Sir Henry Wellcome’s death, now the largest medical research charity in the world.

Wellcome became sole owner of the company in 1895, following the death of his partner Silas Mainville Burroughs (1846-1895) and thus achieved the spending power to indulge his collecting interests, as well as funding scientific research and archaeological excavation. The Library’s first acquisitions are recorded at the end of 1897. A few years later Wellcome also began to collect artefacts for what was to become the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, opened in 1913. Museum and Library grew steadily until the end of Wellcome’s life, with increasingly diverse coverage. Wellcome saw medicine as closely linked to anthropology, which was always his primary interest. After his death it was decided that the collections should be more strictly devoted to the history of medicine and science and much irrelevant material was eliminated by sale or by gift to other institutions. The medical artefacts from the Museum have mostly been deposited with the Science Museum.

The Library was first opened to the public at the end of 1949, as the Wellcome Historical Medical Library. In 1968 it became the Library of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. Its present name, the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine (Wellcome Library for short), was adopted in 1999, reflecting its position as part of the Medicine, Society and History Division of the Wellcome Trust. It has developed steadily over the years and now serves an international clientele, drawn from the academic world, the medical profession, the media and the general public. It maintains close links with the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London.

In addition to the book collections there are extensive collections of archives and manuscripts, oriental printed books and manuscripts, and visual resources including paintings, prints, drawings and photographs.

Early Printed Books

The Early Printed Books collection contains about 66,000 books and periodicals published before 1851. There are over 600 incunabula and more than 5000 books from the 16th century. Much of the material was collected in Sir Henry Wellcome’s lifetime and reflects his purchasing from earlier collections, sometimes en bloc. Acquisitions have continued since 1936, but on a much reduced scale. The two most important purchases of early printed books since Wellcome’s death are Dr Francisco Guerra’s collection of medical Americana, (1962) and a large part of the Library of the Medical Society of London (1984). As well as medicine and pharmacy, the collection includes substantial holdings in science (particularly botany, chemistry and alchemy), travel, cookery, history and bibliography.

Coverage of file

The file contains just under 60,000 records representing books published up to 1830, as at the end of 2001.

Mode of cataloguing

Automated cataloguing of new accessions to the early printed book collection began in the late 1980s, following AACR2 with some modifications from DCRB. The bulk of the collection was retroconverted by OCLC between 1990 and 1993, not directly from the books but for the most part from the Library’s series of published catalogues of early printed books (vol. 1, pre-1641, 1962; vols. 2-4, 1641-1850, M-R, 1966-1995; medical Americana, 1983), which basically followed the 1908 Anglo-American code. Typed slips or cards were used for material not yet included in published volumes (e.g. 1641-1850, S-Z; Medical Society of London; recent accessions). Many of the records were drawn from the OCLC database and were originally created in other libraries, particularly in the USA. There are thus some inconsistencies of presentation. A certain amount of material has still to be retroconverted, in particular much single-sheet ephemera and some 200 bound volumes of 16th-19th century pamphlets from the Medical Society of London. Provenance is often noted, but far from comprehensively.

Recommendations for searching

Searching is possible by keyword, author, title and subject. The Library’s Innopac Millennium system particularly facilitates keyword searching of all text of the records. Forms of name are not always consistent, and a project to impose name authority control is planned. Library of Congress subject headings are used, but have not yet been applied throughout the early printed book collections.

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 resources/hpb/content/wellcome_library_for_the_history_and_understanding_of_medicine_london.txt · Last modified: 2013/08/23 11:37 by baldwin



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