University Health and Medical Librarians Group

Antecedents of UHMLG: A History of the University Medical School Librarians Group


The 2000 Bishop and Lefanu Memorial Lecture sponsored by the Library Association's Health Libraries Group, entitled "Getting Organised: A History of the NHS Regional Librarians Group and the University Medical School Librarians Group", was given jointly by Michael Carmel and Peter Morgan. The edited text of Part 2, "A History of the University Medical School Librarians Group" follows below.


Library Association Health Libraries Group

Bishop and Lefanu Memorial Lecture

6 november 2000
(Institute of Child Health, London)

"Getting Organised - a History of the NHS Regional Librarians Group and the University Medical School Librarians Group"

part 2
A History of the University Medical School Librarians Group

Peter Morgan
(Librarian, Cambridge University Medical Library)

There's an irony this evening in that, for all their prominence in medical library circles, neither Bishop nor LeFanu ever worked in an NHS or medical school library; but the subject of this year's Lecture is nonetheless entirely appropriate because throughout their careers both men demonstrated an unswerving commitment to promoting professional organisations.

Listening to Michael Carmel's paper on the history of the NHS Regional Librarians Group, I've been struck by similarities between the RLG - its underlying principles, the issues it has addressed, and so on - and UMSLG, so some of what I have to say may sound familiar. But there are also significant differences between the two groups which I hope to illustrate in this second presentation. In preparing it I've tried to do more than provide a simple chronological account. I see this as an opportunity to examine the political, organisational and social forces that have helped to shape UMSLG's history thus far. History isn't simply a description of what happened: it is above all about learning lessons from the past. As the philosopher Santayana put it, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".

When I was first invited to take part in this lecture, I'll confess to having had misgivings on several counts. First, I was already scheduled to give a paper at the International Congress on Medical Librarianship in London this summer on the structure and role of UMSLG. Inevitably this evening's paper covers some of the same ground - so to those of you unwise enough to have attended on both occasions, I can only commiserate.

Secondly, I'm well aware that there are others, some of them in the audience now, who are at least as well qualified as I am to speak on this subject, so I must make it clear that I'm not attempting to offer an official history of UMSLG. While I'm grateful to those who've helped me with my preparations, this end-result is very much a personal and highly selective view, and I hope other members of the Group will make due allowance for its shortcomings. I was encouraged, though, when I came across Lytton Strachey's remark that "Ignorance is the first requisite of the historian - ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art". So I shall plead ignorance with a clear conscience.

My third reservation was more selfish. The realisation that I was seen as an appropriate speaker partly - maybe entirely - because I had lived through the events in question was one I found vaguely unsettling. I hadn't yet begun to think of myself as a historical relic, and wondered whether I should resist more strongly in order to preserve a degree of self-esteem. But shortly after receiving the invitation I happened to come across the image of a shoe fluoroscope on the Web. Some of you may recall using such gadgets when buying shoes many years ago, and they're certainly part of my childhood memories. Having been widely employed in both North America and Europe from the 1930's to the 1960's, they were then withdrawn from service as a health hazard because some of them emitted a high level of radiation, though examples were still in use at least into the early 1980's. This image shows a machine that the US Food and Drug Administration had placed on display in Minneapolis, in the "Museum of Questionable Medical Devices". With the discovery that another part of my life had now officially become a museum piece, I realised that further resistance was useless.

And so to UMSLG. To explore the Group's origins we must start in London. After the Second World War John Thornton, librarian at Bart's, had encouraged medical school librarians to meet informally in one another's libraries. In the late 1970's the librarians of the undergraduate medical schools in London adopted a more organised approach and established a formal group which they called, accurately if not imaginatively, Librarians of London Undergraduate Medical Schools, or LLUMS. They had an agreed constitution, and met three times a year at different member institutions. A secretary was elected to serve for five years at a time, and each meeting was chaired by the host librarian. We should remember that in those days most of the London medical schools were not attached to the University's constituent colleges, but were free-standing institutions within the University. LLUMS thus provided a much-needed forum for communication and exchange of experience among the dozen or so specialist and predominantly independent medical school librarians. It did not report formally to another body within the University, but was strictly autonomous. (LLUMS subsequently admitted the two postgraduate medical schools - the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and the Royal Postgraduate Medical School - as members, and at that point modified its name so that the U in LLUMS stood for "University" and not "Undergraduate".)

In June 1982 two members of LLUMS, Phyllis Gale and Shane Godbolt, who were then respectively the medical school librarians at Guy's and Charing Cross, wrote on behalf of LLUMS to medical school librarians in the rest of the United Kingdom. They noted that both the RLG and LLUMS already existed, and suggested that a national group should be formed on the same lines as LLUMS "to discuss matters of mutual concern". Their letter produced a very positive response, and a meeting of interested parties was held in July 1982 during the course of the LA MHWLG annual conference at Exeter University. The original invitation went to 34 medical school librarians. 16 attended the Exeter meeting, and others wrote to support the proposal. The meeting duly agreed unanimously that a national group should be established, and a small working group was set up to draft a constitution and make arrangements for a formal launch. Incidentally, of the original 34 members of UMSLG, seven are still members (though not necessarily in the same libraries as then).

The Group's first official meeting duly took place in April 1983 at Edinburgh University. It approved the draft constitution, and the University Medical School Librarians Group, or UMSLG, became a reality. The correct abbreviation, by the way, is UMSLG and not UMSLUG. And if you think that "UMSLG" is not the most euphonious or pronounceable of acronyms, then spare a thought for another group whose name in part shares our acronym - UMSLGBFA (University of Maryland System Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Faculty Association).

UMSLG's Aims and Objectives were stated in the 1983 constitution and have remained essentially the same ever since:

Aims:
"The Aims of the Group shall be to consider library and information services issues relevant to the University Medical Schools, and to make comments or recommendations to the appropriate authorities".

Objectives:
"1. To develop and improve library and information services in the University Medical Schools by co-ordination at regional level and by the exchange of expertise and information.
2. To promote the provision and use of library and information services in support of University Medical School activities.
3. To liaise with other libraries, organisations or information services as appropriate.
4. To engage in common activities".

There is, I think, a noticeable resemblance between these statements and those contained in the RLG's constitution, which pre-dated this. The whiff of plagiarism may be explained in part by the significant overlap in membership between the two groups, which in the early 1980's was much greater than it is now.

The UMSLG Constitution's concept of membership went through some fine tuning during its first two years before settling on the definition that membership "shall be open to persons currently holding the post of Librarian of a University Medical School or Librarian of a postgraduate medical school of the University of London, and shall be by invitation of the Group". Later amendments extended eligibility for membership to include the librarians of the specialist postgraduate medical institutes within London University, and medical school librarians from the Republic of Ireland. The two key qualifications for membership were, and remain:
- that the school or institute in question awards medical degrees; and
- that membership is ex officio - only the librarian directly responsible for the library in question may be invited to join the Group.

From 1985 the constitution also included a clause ensuring that founder members of the Group should not lose membership as a consequence of a merger involving their original parent institution. This has become particularly important in the light of recent changes in London.

The Group's administrative arrangements were similar to those of LLUMS and the RLG. It elected a secretary to serve for three years (Toby Robertson being the founding secretary), and its twice-yearly meetings were held at different medical schools around the country under the chairmanship of the host librarian, who then held office for six months. There was provision for an annual membership subscription.

At this point I want to pause and consider why UMSLG came into existence when it did. Just why did its members now feel the need to unite in this way? Medical school libraries had, after all, been around for many years. NHS libraries, in contrast, had become relatively commonplace only in the recent past, following the growth of postgraduate medical centres in the 1960's, and their staff were professionally isolated with poor status and a low political profile. The new wave of NHS libraries had to fight to establish their role in the scheme of things, and the RLG's emergence in the 1970's was a logical further stage in this evolutionary process.

But in universities, libraries have always enjoyed a very different status. They lie at the intellectual heart of the institution, and this central position has been unchallenged for centuries (I speak of the pre-electronic era.) The majority of medical school libraries, whether or not physically separate, were organisationally part of the parent university library. Most medical school librarians could thus look to the university librarian for leadership within the university; and the university librarian, as a member of SCONUL (the Standing Conference of National and University Libraries) was in turn able to participate in co-ordinated policy-making and strategic thinking at a national level. Thus an infrastructure existed which could reasonably be expected to be aware of, and responsive to, the needs of medical school librarians.

So what changed? I suggest it was the convergence of at least five factors. First, the NHS had become more library-conscious, raising its expectations of what medical school libraries could and should offer to their NHS users, requiring medical school librarians to be more sensitive to NHS needs and thus emphasising the external relationship which set medical school libraries apart from other components of the university library. Secondly, alongside this, the NHS was adopting more modern management techniques, posing novel challenges for university representatives charged with the task of liaising and negotiating with the NHS authorities.

Thirdly, in 1981 the government of the day had imposed drastic and unprecedented cuts in university funding, with an average 15% reduction per university. These cuts threatened medical school library services not only to their university users, but also to local NHS staff, placing a strain on relations. Fourthly, in 1978 the Library Association's Medical Section - which of course Bishop and LeFanu had helped to found in 1947 - had merged with the Hospital Libraries Section to form the Medical, Health and Welfare Libraries Group, and many medical school librarians felt that the enlarged LA Group could not represent their special views as effectively as before. And finally, SCONUL's continuing inability to cover all medical school libraries (there were 11 non-aligned medical school libraries in London and one in Cardiff) meant that this sector was consistently underrepresented in the reports that SCONUL prepared for its own use and as evidence to bodies such as the University Grants Committee.

The formation of LLUMS had already been in part a response to this last factor; and the emergence of both LLUMS and the RLG had demonstrated a viable alternative approach to professional collaboration and representation. Thus by 1982 there was no shortage of reasons for medical school librarians to feel that they were facing a new set of issues; that the old order of things was not well-suited to meeting these challenges; and therefore that the solution lay in nationally-organised peer-group activity. And so in April 1983 UMSLG was formally launched. Like LLUMS and the RLG it was self-constituted and independent (though of course since many of its members continued to report to university librarians, some UMSLG members were less independent than others).

UMSLG's early agendas set the pattern for subsequent years. Many of its discussions related to practical issues - student access to one another's libraries, staff training, copyright, and so on. But a dominant theme was the collection of statistics and other data, both to record routine measures of activity and to monitor the effects of funding cuts. As the Group compiled more evidence and became more confident that it was well-informed, so increasingly it found that its much-prized independence was restricting its opportunities for publicising its findings effectively through the established channels of communication in higher education. Before the end of 1984 this led the Group to approach SCONUL and propose some form of affiliation.

SCONUL, despite its multiplicity of specialist advisory committees, had previously rejected internal proposals for a medical committee. But by 1984 university librarians had begun to take note of UMSLG's existence, which was highlighting their own failure to address adequately the issues UMSLG was discussing. SCONUL responded positively to UMSLG's approach, and duly formed a new Advisory Committee on Medical Materials, which first met in June 1985. The Committee Chairman and the Secretary, respectively Fred Friend and Derek Law, were both members of SCONUL, and the other six committee members were all provided by UMSLG, being the secretaries of UMSLG and LLUMS plus four regional representatives.

With this new structure in place, UMSLG and the SCONUL Advisory Committee quickly established an effective working relationship. The Group continued to meet twice yearly, dealing with a wide range of both political and operational topics and generally ensuring that its members were kept well-informed on the topics of the day. (Indeed, at least one university librarian was heard to observe that he found medical school librarians rather disconcerting because they always seemed so much better informed than other librarians he encountered.) At the same time, working to agendas that were largely compiled by its UMSLG members, the SCONUL Committee dealt especially with issues that might require a dialogue with other bodies and where SCONUL's name might carry more influence. And there were occasional forays into other activities, such as the 1988 seminar - sponsored by the Advisory Committee - on "Conservation and Management of Medical Collections".

It was standard SCONUL practice for each of its advisory committees to convene an annual meeting of consultation open to all those interested in the Committee's work, and the Annual Meeting of Consultation for Medical Materials was duly linked with the Group's Autumn meetings. In due course responsibility for organising these passed from SCONUL to UMSLG, and the Open Forum that took place here earlier today was the sixteenth in the series. Although the early annual meetings were largely reports on the Advisory Committee's work, subsequent meetings were devoted to more specific topics. At UMSLG's suggestion one of these, in 1988, looked at the role of the British Library in supporting medical and health information.

This was to have far-reaching consequences. Following the meeting the Group Secretary, Sheila Cannell, drafted a paper for the SCONUL Committee summarising the issues that had been raised. The Committee invited the RLG to collaborate, and the resulting joint paper, after receiving SCONUL Council's seal of approval, was forwarded to the British Library. The BL responded by establishing a Review of Health Care Information and then in 1992 by sponsoring the first of the two Cumberlege Seminars, setting in motion a sequence of developments that included the emergence of the BL's own Health Care Information Service, the creation of the post of NHS Library Adviser, and the formation of the LINC Health Panel. I don't suggest for one moment that this sequence of events was due entirely to UMSLG, as others - notably the RLG - invested enormous effort in tackling these issues; but we can claim that UMSLG provided a means of unlocking the door to real progress.

The happy state of affairs I've described, with UMSLG and the SCONUL Advisory Committee complementing one another, received a rude shock in 1991 after SCONUL had undertaken a major review of its aims and organisation. While other committees were suppressed or merged, SCONUL decided that the Advisory Committee on Medical Materials needed not only to be retained, but to be given a higher profile. It established a new Advisory Committee on Health Services with a membership consisting entirely of SCONUL members, and appointed David Russon (then Director-General of the BL at Boston Spa) as chairman. It encouraged UMSLG to maintain its links with the new Committee by inviting one of the SCONUL members to attend UMSLG meetings as an observer.

Thus, paradoxically, UMSLG had become a victim of its own success in persuading SCONUL to devote more attention to medical library matters. An UMSLG working party, formed to consider the implications, concluded that the Group needed to strengthen its own management structure so that it could undertake a more active role, and proposed a new executive committee, consisting of a Chairman and Secretary, four other elected members (of which at least one was to be a London member and one a member from outside London), and up to 2 co-opted members. The UMSLG Executive Committee came into existence in January 1992, and its constitution, with the addition of a Group Treasurer, has remained broadly similar to the present time.

When the new SCONUL Advisory Committee first met, later in 1992, it heard the Group's misgivings about loss of direct representation, took note of UMSLG's revised structure, and agreed that the UMSLG Chairman should in future be co-opted ex officio as an additional member of the Advisory Group. (When polytechnics subsequently joined the university sector, a similar arrangement saw the ex officio inclusion of the Chairman of the former COPOL Health Sciences Group.)

It should also be noted that although UMSLG no longer had such numerous direct representation on the SCONUL Committee, it still had powerful friends at court, since the members that SCONUL selected from its own ranks to serve on the Advisory Committee tended to include those who had previous form as medical school librarians. Moreover, some non-aligned medical school libraries - first at Cardiff and then at St George's in London - succeeded in meeting SCONUL's own membership criteria, thus becoming full SCONUL members and further strengthening the UMSLG voice at SCONUL.

With its new structure, UMSLG became much more active on its own count. Its Executive Committee took over the Group's routine business - organising group meetings, briefing members on new developments, facilitating exchanges of information, maintaining contacts with other bodies, furnishing evidence to committees of enquiry, commenting on official reports, lobbying on its own account and supporting SCONUL's efforts in the same vein, and so on - in other words, generally trying to look after members' interests and at the same time make a contribution to the infrastructure of medical library services in both the academic and NHS sectors. Liberated from most of this routine business, the full Group's Spring meeting, which was by now a residential two-day meeting held in different parts of the British Isles, and its Open Forum in the Autumn, both became more substantial and more overtly educational events, giving those who attended the opportunity to address complex issues in greater depth than had hitherto been possible.

In recent years other important collaborations have emerged to complement the relationship between UMSLG and SCONUL. Links with the RLG have been strengthened, and have led to joint initiatives such as the RLG/UMSLG Research Bursary established in 1996. Representatives of UMSLG have met regularly in tripartite meetings with counterparts from the RLG and the University Health Sciences Librarians. And UMSLG became a Foundation Member of the LINC Health Panel when it was launched in 1995.

There isn't time to describe all the Group's activities in detail, but they fall broadly into four categories: (a) communication and co-operation; (b) political representation; (c) liaison; and (d) meetings and surveys.

(a) In the field of communication, the Group has for a number of years maintained three email lists. Two are closed lists, for the Group and its Committee. The third, lis-medical, is an open list with an international membership that recently passed the 1,000 mark. The Group also maintains its own Web site (http://www.uhmlg.ac.uk/).

(b) Political activity has brought the Group into contact with library organisations such as SCONUL, the British Library, and the U.S. National Library of Medicine; with higher education organisations such as the Funding Councils, JISC, CHEST, and the undergraduate medical deans; and with NHS organisations such as the NHS Executive and the postgraduate deans.

(c) Liaison activities have seen UMSLG establish links with a wide variety of professional library groups - including of course the RLG - both in the UK and overseas.

(d) And finally, the Group's programme of meetings and surveys have helped to prepare members for major initiatives in higher education such as problem-based learning, the Research Assessment Exercise, and the Quality Assurance process in medical teaching.

So where does that leave us? The title of this evening's lecture is "Getting Organised", but it shouldn't be taken to imply either that there was no organisation before we appeared on the scene, or that we're now totally organised and that the job is finished. Both notions are obviously false. UMSLG is a mere 17-year-old adolescent, due to reach the age of majority next year. Pop stars and footballers produce their autobiographies when they're still very young, but they do so in the belief that they'll shortly be past their sell-by date. This I fervently believe is not the case with UMSLG: the Group, with a current membership of 44, is young, healthy, and vigorous, and I hope can look forward with confidence to a long and rewarding life.

I'd planned to conclude my talk with a photograph of UMSLG members as a group. But the only pictures I could lay my hands on all seemed to show members wining and dining, and since I'd hate to give you the impression that this was typical UMSLG behaviour, I'll leave you instead to consider one final word of caution from the father of history, Herodotus: "Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects.