Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland

  • link to blog on George Jameson Johnston, born on 18th April 1866 in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, which stimulated this page.

Posts from libraries with Special Collections inspire me. While our Medical Library is not a special collection repository, we do have some older material. One such book arrived on my desk today. “Sir William Osler aphorisms from his bedside teachings and writings”,  edited by William Bennett Bean and published in 1951 by Charles C. Thomas in Illinois.

My first encounter with Osler was in an article in the British Medical Journal many years ago. I don’t even remember the article itself, but the following quotation was used:

 “To study the phenomena of disease without books is to sail an uncharted sea, while to study books without patients is not to go to sea at all.”

This resonated with me so much that I had it prominently displayed in the library when  I worked.  It stimulated many discussions between readers and myself, even arguments among doctors and admiration from others.

This little book which I have on my desk just now, is a treasury of Osler’s sayings or aphorisms as the editor, William Bennett calls them.  William’s father, Robert Bennett Bean was a student of Osler’s. Robert, while on ward rounds with Osler during 1903 – 5, made notes of Osler’s sayings, these notes were the foundation of this little book.

Osler as those familiar with medicine may know is regarded as the father of modern medicine, among many other practices is noted for advocating  the teaching of medicine away from the classroom,  at the patient’s bedside.

“Aphorism” comes from the Greek meaning “a short phrase that expresses a true or wise idea”, Merrian-Webster online.  The word was first used in connection with Hippocrates, whom Osler himself believed to have laid down the foundations of modern medicine. The aphorisms of Hippocrates are numerous and outdated, as indeed are some of Osler’s own..Here is one of his more famous sayings:

“LIFE is short, and Art long; the crisis fleeting; experience perilous, and decision difficult. The physician must not only be prepared to do what is right himself, but also to make the patient, the attendants, and externals cooperate.”


“Drinking strong wine cures hunger”


“Those diseases which medicines do not cure, the knife  cures; those which the knife cannot cure, fire cures; and those which fire cannot cure, are to be reckoned wholly incurable.”


Osler’s aphorisms are perhaps not so archaic:

“There are only two sorts of doctors; those who practice with their brains, and those who practice with their tongues”




Change happens… Nobody puts baby in the corner!

Don't put baby in the corner

Microform* Reader Printer

While retrieving items from the book store, I spied our microfiche-reader-printer, squirreled away in a corner, hemmed in by a photocopier and other large objects. I’ve passed it hundreds of times in the last few years, without mentally registering that it was there. How the mighty have fallen! In days gone by, this proud machine had a large office all to itself and was visited several times a day to read and print either microfiche or microfilm.

Discussions and debates about the currency of microform usage can be viewed on the internet and in library periodicals. Cost, preservation, long-term storage safety, upgrading of media, availability of hardware and skilled staff are all elements, argued and counter-argued. I trawled through a few debates, but it reminded me of watching a close game of table tennis, with one professional knocking down another’s argument and vice versa. Others would weigh in to support one or the other. Each argument sounding convincing in its own way, here are but a few of the comments.

  • Microfilm incurs film and developing costs, greater than digital storage devices.
  • Cheaper storage devices are unreliable.
  • Microform is safer for long term storage and preservation.
  • Analog is dying.
  • Microfilm needs to be transferred to digital
  • Metadata may be lost or changed when upgrading.
  • New technology has sophisticated methods for transferring data.
  • Old hardware takes up too much space.
  • Fewer staff have the skills to store microform properly.
19th century documents.

19th century documents.

New hardware is often heralded as being “The One”, the replacement for paper. That’s what happened in our library in the 1970s, when we received a huge donation of journals on microfiche and film. The word was, we would have a paperless library within ten years. A refrain echoed in today’s digital age. Books are dead! Paper has been around for a thousand years, in spite of different media formats. Will it be around for another thousand? What do you think?

British Library Microfiche 1986.

British Library Microfiche 1986.


Unlike newspaper or government libraries, our microform collection bit the dust some time ago. I’m sure I was the last person to actually print from it, and that was at least eight years ago. The toner was exceptionally expensive and the copies weren’t of high quality.


Still  capable of being used to read microfiche, the print facility is no longer required. Waiting for rescue, “baby” sits in the corner hoping that a “Patrick Swayze” will take notice.

Microform* see Wikipedia site for more information,



Change happens

Change happens

Date labels from 1960s to present day.

Yesterday I retrieved a couple of books from our book store containing our pre-1986 material. One of the books contained three date labels, testifying to its loan history, beginning in January 1965 and ending in May 2009. Initially I was struck by the physical change in the size of the labels and amused to “remember” how we used to stamp the labels with the due date. How quickly those days are put behind us, now all book information is accessible online.

The size, shapes, colour and telephone numbers may have changed, but the one constant is the sentence: ‘a fine will be imposed’. The most recent label reads “Fines are imposed on overdue books”, which is perhaps slightly softer.

The dates on older labels had been diligently crossed out and initialled, evidence of the working practice of the day. In addition to the date label, which was stamped with the due date, each book had a unique borrower card which had to be completed, signed, stamped and filed. Upon return, the borrower card had to be retrieved, signature crossed out and date label crossed and initialled. This signified that the borrower card had indeed been matched to the book. If a the cards weren’t married up, the borrower could receive overdues, which could be irksome. Laborious and time consuming, for borrower and library staff! The filing of cards was a never ending task, a misfiled card could mean a lengthy and often frustrating search.

Change happens.


Copyright – Maze? Labyrinth? Quagmire?

Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut  made a great impact in Ireland, having posted comments and photographs about Ireland from space. Last year, he  visited schools  and spoke Gaelic, and   was greeted everywhere he went  as a superstar.  While still in space, he made a video of himself in space, playing the guitar and  singing David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’. Chris obtained a year’s licence to post the video on YouTube. That year has expired and Chris has removed the video which received nearly 17 million hits.

This,  combined with a discussion in work about copyright, sent me on a quest to know a little more. However, the more I looked into the subject, the more I uncovered my ignorance and the complexities of copyright affecting  in every aspect of life are overwhelming. Initially I was going to call this entry ‘The quagmire that is copyright’, I reconsidered, thinking it was more like a labyrinth, or is it a maze?

Then I wondered what the official dictionaries of these words are, so I visited the Oxford online dictionary  to provide accurate definitions and to ascertain which was the most suitable:

 Maze “network of paths and hedges designed as a puzzle through which one has to find a way” or “A complex network of paths or passage” or “A confusing mass of information

Labyrinth = “A complicated irregular network of passages or paths in which it is difficult to find one’s way” or “An intricate and confusing arrangement”. [I have excluded the definitions regarding,  the bony labyrinth from the inner ear and the respiratory organ of certain fish] 

Quagmire = “A soft boggy area of land that gives way underfoot”,  or  “An awkward, complex, or hazardous situation”

Personally, I’d say it could be any one of these or all three, but I’ll leave it up to you, which you think most appropriate.

In my quest for knowledge, I came across a statement from Ronnie Burt in “The Edublogger”, stating

“Libraries have access to tons of licensed materials and librarians are specially trained to help us navigate the difficult copyright laws”.

Working in the library environment copyright questions arise often, thus the basic principles  are deeply entrenched in our working practice. Information on copyright guidelines for researchers are made available on the library websites of all the Irish Universities websites, often with useful links. One such link is the Copyright Association of Ireland Another is  the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency  The European Commission has a committment to harmonisation of certain aspects of copyright which can be found at the following link:

Librarians  excel in research and  have a plethora of resources, accessible when specialised  queries arise, and they do have a healthy respect for the rules, regulations and premise of copyright. Does that make librarians the experts? What do you think?

The Irish love the telling of a story,  so here is one directly related to copyright, set in Ireland during the sixth century. The first case of copyright infringement.

St Columba (521 – 597 A.D.), who founded the Celtic monastery on the Island of Iona and whose name in Gaelic is Colum meaning ‘Dove’,  also known as Columcille  meaning ‘dove of the church’, was a student of Finian of Maigh Bhile (Finnian of Moville). Finian brought back from Rome,  St Jerome’s book of Psalters containing the text of Psalms 30:10 to 105:13 in Latin. Columcille borrowed it and secretly had it copied, believing that it should be shared. However, Finian disagreed and demanded the return of the Psalter and the copy which Columcille had made. Agreement could not be found, so the case was brought before the High King, Diarmaid Mac Cearrbhaill. 

Diarmuid’s ruling was le gach bó a buinín agus le gach leabhar a chóip”.

“To every cow her calf and to every book its copy”

This was clever as the copy of the Psalter was written on calf skin. Alas, Columcille was not happy with the King, so with the accumulation of additional grievances, a mighty battle ensued, which resulted in Columcille going into exile to Iona. It is said that he wanted to make amends by converting as many souls to Christianity, though it is also said that he was expelled from Ireland1

1Halsall P.  Medieval sourcebook: Adamnan: the life of St Columba. New York: Fordham University, The Jesuit University of New York; 1998. Available online from:


Ebooks and textbooks

Ebooks and textbooks

Kindle and textbooks with James Lindsay

Nearly fifteen years ago I was fortunate to be at a talk delivered by the esteemed Sean Phillips, (now retired), formerly Librarian of University College Dublin. The talk centred around change, in which he mentioned the advent of electronic books. Afterwards, we discussed his theory and many of us were, I’m sorry to say, sceptical. We cited the hype surrounding microfiche and microfilm, heralded as replacements for books, yet falling into obscurity. More of a nuisance than help. We failed to see how it we could suffer reading online.

Ten years ago, Amazon produced a promotional video for the new Kindle. Suddenly it was clear to me, that Sean had been correct, while we were short-sighted. I shared this with some non-library friends. They were vociferous in their denial of ever using a device to read a book. Never! Never! Never! Yet all of those same friends, now extol the virtues of their devices, which accompany them everywhere. True haven’t totally abandoned their books yet.

The debate surrounding eBooks vs hard-copy, with the myriad and divergent opinions, is too complicated for me to enter into here. This is my personal opinion, gauged on my interaction with students, regarding their reception of electronic textbooks.

In my own institution [not that I actually ‘own’ it!], as with most academic institutions, the availability of textbooks in electronic form has grown exponentially. Popular textbooks, even though multiple copies are purchased, quickly become unavailable. Those of us who interface with the readers, are delighted to be able to present an eBook, as an alternative, if the reader has been unsuccessful in obtaining a hardcopy. Disappointingly, the readers don’t seem to share our enthusiasm. So, I conducted an unofficial, ad hoc inquiry into the reasons why they are reluctant or resistant to the eBook.

The readers questioned were all medical or dental students. They were told why I was interested in their answers, and were promised anonymity, which they consented to. Most of the students were in their early twenties, though the answers they gave matched those of older readers. The initial question was, ‘What is it about the hard copy of the book that you prefer to the eBook?’ and ‘Would you use a Kindle or other device?’. I asked thirty students of the 20 – 25 age bracket and six of the 26-plus age bracket. Without exception, they all had either a Kindle or a Kindle app, which they are happy to use for non-textbook reading. Here’s a sample of replies:

• ‘I’d prefer to hold a book.’
• ‘With a book I can scoot backwards and forwards quickly.’
• ‘Ebooks are too slow.’
• ‘I hate reading a textbook online.’
• ‘I can’t access the Internet at home.’
• ‘I can’t concentrate properly in front of the computer.’
• ‘My eyes stop focusing on the screen’
• ‘I don’t feel as if I’m taking in the information properly’
• ‘The books don’t look the same on all my devices, I have an iPhone, tablet and laptop’

They were unanimous in accepting the eBook as a last resort. Unscientific it might be, but it gave rise to some discussion with colleagues. We agreed that the textbook as an eBook is certainly the way forward. It is the most efficient way to provide access to the greatest numbers of library users. We did empathise with many of the comments and discussed how the eBook would need to be radically altered to accommodate students’ needs.

The students in my ‘survey’ probably first encountered the electronic formats in secondary school, perhaps next generation of students brought up with eBooks much earlier may be more accepting.
Technology is sure to make advances which will in turn make comments like these historical.

P.S. James Lindsay, was one of the Lindsay brothers, who established many mills in Belfast, including Mulhouse Works and Prospect Mills. Originally from Fintona, County Tyrone, he died in 1884, aged 77, in Vichy, France en route to his home in Cannes. His bust looks kindly on the Medical Library Borrower Services Desk.


Camel Herding Librarians

Yesterday I came across a blog by Pamela Toler,  which referred to *Alberto Manguel’s book “A history of reading”. An intriguing title, which I immediately checked for in our catalogue. It was there, so I lost no time in requesting it.

What an amazing book, of interest to anyone who enjoys reading. An eclectic compilation of information pertaining to books, reading and authors. Beautifully written, cleverly constructed, taking the reader on Alberto’s personal journey.

In her post, Pamela talks about book hoarding – a sin many book lovers may be familiar with! [Will the advent of ebooks alter book collecting?] The following passage quoted by Pamela from Manguel, and which I am replicating, is fascinating and begged to be shared!

“The alphabet sometimes served as a key for retrieving volumes. In the tenth century, for instance, the Grand Vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, in order not to part with his collection of 117,000 volumes when travelling, had them carried by a caravan of four hundred camels trained to walk in alphabetical order.”

Apparently each camel herder was responsible for retrieving the volumes from his camel, effectively four hundred librarians!

I wonder what would be the collective noun for a group of librarians? A quick search revealed several suggestions, such as “shush” or “stack”. Then I found the following link: There may be some knowledgeable person out there with a definitive definition?

The image of an alphabetised train of camels, with the handlers being librarians, made me smile. At the same time I couldn’t help but wonder about the storage of the books. What about the heat, and the dust?  Or indeed,  as one of my colleagues pointed out ‘in hot countries, there would be the insects’.

Would the Grand Vizier have welcomed ebooks? What about the redundant camel herding librarians?

*Manguel, Alberto. A history of reading. London: Flamingo; 1996. p. 193.

Exam Time

Date Stamps

Date Stamps!


Students hunched over textbooks, with furrowed brows. Some scribbling furiously, putting their trust in their sense of touch, to remember what they are reading. Examinations are just around the corner and the atmosphere has altered.

Textbooks are popular once again. Huge tomes are being pored over with diligence and concentration.

“Tomes”, a word we use not infrequently, and while confident that it was correct, doubt crept in and I had to check. Glad I did, because technically it isn’t correct  when, for example  referring to “Grey’s anatomy”, a weighty book if ever there was one. Tomes comes from the Greek tomos,  a “roll of papyrus,” and was originally a word for one volume of a larger work. Now, that I didn’t know!

I’ve been reminded that I promised to explain our lack of self-service machines, I didn’t drop that with the intention of making it a hook of curiousity.  Quite simply, we don’t have enough readers to warrant the expense and I’m glad, but that doesn’t mean I’m oblivious to the merits of self-service in the library environment.

I do stress the library environment, because when it comes to the supermarket self-service, I’m a dinosaur. The machines conspire against me. Scanning items is fine, but choosing your bag, placing items on the narrow ledge, and trying to pack efficiently, while under the impatient gaze of queues of people, I am reduced  to ineptitude. Something won’t scan, or I’ve done something I shouldn’t and help is required. My solution is avoidance and patiently waiting in a queue for an assistant, which allows me to pack in comfort.

Self-service in libraries is much more straightforward, a simple demonstration is usually enough to get the person started.  When they were first installed, they created a lot of work, instructing nearly every reader individually on ‘how to do it’. Students now come to our library expecting to see a self-service machine. They wander all around the desk area, looking past the people, searching for a machine!  We have to explain that we are the machines!

Not having the machines, means that we can tag on more information about the loans and explain  what happens if someone else needs the book. We encourage interaction which in turn makes our readers more comfortable in asking questions.

There is another side – some readers are shy about coming to the desk, or they’d prefer others not to see what they’re borrowing, or to know that they have fines. Actually, we do have a machine for paying fines, though most students either have no money on their cards, or prefer to empty their pockets etc of small change. Our fines aren’t exorbitant – usually!

Gone are the days of card catalogues; of paper library cards which had to be signed by the borrower. Few even remember what a pain they were for staff and borrowers  – sometimes ten cards to sign and the writing might not even have been legible. Overdues written out by hand. Computer generated overdue or recall emails are most welcome. 

Gone too are the date stamps to check books in and out. Technology marches on, doubtless the self-service will visit us too eventually.

Some say that books will go too,  but that’s a debate for another day.

Beth Dempsey, Principal of Dempsey Communications Group , a firm which specialises in strategic communications for knowledge organisations, wrote this article in 2010 about self-service. Library Journal, June 10 2010.










Assignments Wordcloud



Easter is almost upon us, pesky presentations are ancient history, but assignments have materialised out of the ether – or so some of our students would have you believe.

In common with most libraries, we are closing for the long weekend. This seems to have come as a shock to those who have a couple of assignments due at the beginning of May – less than two weeks away!

Most of our students are well prepared. Today several were gathered around the Issue Desk, having finished an exam. It’s interesting listening to them chat  about their forthcoming assignments. One young man mused about spending ‘forever’ getting his references together. He thought he knew where they all were and merrily sprinkled his assignment with citations, only to discover that he didn’t know what they were after all. Three hours it took him to sort them out. “Never again”, he said.

Another lad labouriously put his references into alphabetical order manually, and had just finished when his girlfriend came in and pointed out that Word can do that for you! Next time.

It makes me sad that we have somehow failed to convey to the students available tools which could make their lives easier – such as Reference Manager or Write-n-Cite. It is a combination of too many new concepts, ideas, and not realising how relevant these things might be.

Unlike the aforementioned students, others are not organised. A few days ago, a couple of students came seeking books on congenital malformations [though that’s not their actual topic!]. They didn’t want to hear about broadening search terms, or hints that perhaps journal articles might be more appropriate.

According to them, the library was useless, it didn’t have ANY books, and those that are here are too old! Nothing more than two years would suffice. I’m sure that most of us working in a library have felt that at some point, and those of us who have been thwarted as students in our search for material, might concur.

Fortunately in our institution, every library user has access to a Subject Specialist, who will spend time teaching search skills and  going over the intricacies of expert searching of databases. Or just how to access information more effectively.

However, if the students leave it to the last minute, as these ladies had, the Subject Specialists can be booked up, that’s when life becomes difficult. This is especially true of those who are computer phobic or computer illiterate. [Is there a difference?].

Truly we want to help; it’s disappointing for us, if someone leaves dissatisfied, which almost happened to these ladies. They didn’t get the exact books they wanted, but they did get textbooks with large chapters on their subject. They decided they didn’t have time to make an appointment with a Subject Specialist and had no idea of the relevance of using a database.

An extremely quick demonstration of what CINAHL was and how to access it, revealed two full text articles which delighted them. They went off to explore for themselves and left delighted with their progress, promising to see the Subject Specialist and not to leave the research to the last minute. Happy days.

By the way, I haven’t forgotten that I promised to talk more about our self-service machines – or lack of. Another topic in the near future is the eBook. Love to have your comments – Happy Easter.



Leaving behind St Patrick’s Day and World Poetry Day,  time to get serious. Less than three weeks to go to Easter and less to the end of term. Anxiety is palpable in the atmosphere here.  Medical students with presentations to prepare  and queries  coming thick and fast.

All manner of “killer” presentation tools  were being including Prezi, Keynote, Powerpoint and Google.  Our readers are constantly teaching us,  how to help them , help others.

All the high-octane in the air and the laptops decide to go on strike!  Students have booked study rooms a week in advance with the aim of perfecting their presentations and we have the unenviable task of telling them our  laptops aren’t working.  Hard as it may be for the student to hear, it’s also difficult for us to deliver the news. Our raison d’étre is to help our readers and we want our library to fulfil their reasonable needs, not  to fail them.

We had to liaise with  IT  to ascertain what was going on. Meanwhile, with some difficulty we managed to make  alternative arrangements, far from ideal, but better than nothing.

The positive outcome is that our students came back after making their presentations, laughing and chattering while thanking us for our help.

When  things are going well, we don’t even think of how fallible technology can be. I wonder how many can remember Overhead Projectors? Incidentally they are still available for purchase!



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