Dirty but rewarding: contributing to the UK Medical Heritage Library

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By | Digital Developments

The Royal College of Surgeons, England was one of 9 institutions that contributed to the UKMHL. Their Collections Librarian, Dot Fouracre, tells us about what it was like to be part of the mass digitisation project.

We were excited to be chosen as a partner for the UK Medical Heritage Library (UKMHL). Contributing to the project has opened up a significant part of our collections to diverse new audiences, and although it was hard work at times, we’re delighted with the results.

irish enthnographic photographs

Photographs from Charles Browne’s ethnographical study of Ireland: ‘The Ethnography of the Mullet, Inishkea Islands, and Portacloy, County Mayo‘ published 1895.

We decided to focus on our tracts and pamphlets for the project. This collection of over 30,000 titles is already well-used by researchers, and many of the works are unique to the Library. It spans 350 years of the history of medicine, surgery and dentistry, as well as numerous other areas such as anthropology, chemistry and climatology. The tracts’ variety and uniqueness made them the perfect candidate for sharing with new audiences.

empty bookshelves

Empty shelves in the RCS library as items were away to be digitised. Image credit: Dot Fouracre.

Although the finished products of the project are slick digital objects, I quickly realised that the process of preparing the tracts for digitisation was distinctly – well, analogue. Each of the 21,500 individual items selected needed to be checked, cleaned and have a slip of paper with their identification number inserted. The volumes were then packed into crates for transportation. After being digitised by the IA unit at Wellcome, they were returned and needed to be unpacked and re-shelved.

crate of books

One of the 53 crates packed during the project. Image credit: Dot Fouracre.

Taking up about one day per week over 18 months, it was often dirty and tiring work. It also emphasised the importance of good quality catalogue records, as even tiny errors in them could disrupt the process. Fortunately, our tracts had been catalogued to a high standard over previous years thanks to a series of grants from Wellcome, and such errors were few and far between.

Getting the time to work so closely with a collection is actually quite rare, and I enjoyed experiencing the collection’s breadth and occasional peculiarities first-hand. (My favourite item remains Gamgee’s ‘Further Inquiry into the Reasons Why the Horse Rarely Vomits’ – it seems his first inquiry did not go far enough.)

French butcher and barrel maker tattoos, 19th century.

French butcher and barrel maker tattoos, 19th century in ‘Les Tatouages : étude anthropologique et médico-légale‘ by A. Lacassagne, 1881.

The effort was worth it. We’re thrilled with how many views our collection has had to date (over 475,000), and the most-viewed items represent its scope nicely, including Irish ethnography, Russian baths and French tattoos. The UKMHL has something for everyone, and we’re looking forward to seeing how our tracts, as part of it, are going to be used and enjoyed by new audiences into the future.


Dot Fouracre is Collections Librarian at the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

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