Shrouded Historical Marker prepared for ceremonial unveiling.

118 and Counting: Happy Birthday MLA!

By Betsy L. Humphreys

Seated formal portrait.
George M. Gould
National Library of Medicine #101416985

On May 2, 1898, a small group of U.S. and Canadian physicians and librarians met in the offices of the Philadelphia Medical Journal to form what is now the Medical Library Association (MLA).  George Milbry Gould, MD, editor of the Journal, Margaret Ridley Charlton, medical librarian at McGill University, and Sir William Osler, then at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, were three prime movers in establishing the new association, although Osler did not attend that first meeting. Dr. Gould was unanimously elected the first President. In a speech to those assembled he looked forward to “such organization of the literary records of medicine that a puzzled worker in any part of the civilized world shall in an hour be able to gain a knowledge pertaining to a subject of the experience of every other man in the world” and spoke of the “measureless beneficence and medical utility in the increase of the number of medical libraries and in the organized co-operation of these, one with another, by means of such an association.”

Thanks to recent efforts by June Fulton, a past MLA President, and the Philadelphia Regional Chapter of MLA, the location of that significant first meeting, 1420 Chestnut Street (later designated 1420-1422 Chestnut Street), now boasts an imposing historical marker commemorating the founding of the world’s oldest association of medical librarians and information professionals.  Fulton undertook the challenge of securing approval for the marker from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to honor Carla Funk, MLA’s former Executive Director, who retired in 2015 after more than 22 years in that position.  Funk unveiled the marker on November 4, 2015 at a ceremony attended by many members of the Philadelphia Regional Chapter and others from further afield, including the current and several past MLA Presidents, as well as representatives from the Commission.

MLA’s 118 year history—and much of the history of the medical library profession—can be explored in the Association’s archives, at the National Library of Medicine (NLM), and in the issues of Journal of the Medical Library Association and its several predecessor journals going back to 1898, all freely available in PubMed Central (PMC).  NLM was more than 60 years old when MLA was founded, but a great deal of NLM’s post-1898 history, including its many interactions with MLA, is also reflected in the Association’s records and journal.

MLA Annual Meeting Logo: Mosaic Be part of the big pictureThis year MLA will hold its annual meeting jointly with the Canadian Health Libraries Association/Association des bibliothèques de la santé du Canada (CHLA/ABSC), and the International Clinical Librarian Conference (ICLC) in Toronto May 13–18, 2016.  Obviously the US-Canadian ties that contributed to MLA’s founding are still very strong.

From its small beginning at 1420 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, MLA has become an effective advocate and an important force in the organization and preservation of medical knowledge, the education and advancement of health information professionals, and broad public access to biomedical and health information—often in far less than an hour. “Measureless beneficence,” indeed!

Indoor Formal Portrait.Betsy L. Humphreys is Acting Director of the National Library of Medicine and a longstanding member of the Medical Library Association.

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