The Osler Library Prints Collection
The Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University houses the personal library of well-known physician and bibliophile Sir William Osler, who bequeathed his collection of roughly eight thousand rare medical and scientific texts to his alma mater. Today, the Osler Library contains more than one hundred thousand works, making it the largest library for historical research in medicine and health in Canada. Not everyone may be able to travel to Montreal—although I strongly urge you to visit—so researchers will be pleased to learn that Osler librarians are making some of their historical material available online by digitizing their special collections, including the Osler Library Prints Collection.
The Osler Library Prints Collection consists of approximately 2,500 visual documents, predominantly prints but also cartoons, drawings, posters, and some photographs, ranging from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. The majority [End Page 435] of the collection consists of portraits, mostly of British and European medical men, including recognizable prints removed from publications. Images of some Canadian physicians can be found, often captured by the Montreal-based photographers William Notman and James Inglis. (Photos of Sir William Osler and his family have also been digitized but reside in the separate online William Osler Photo Collection, which incidentally created the template for subsequent Osler Library digitization projects.) There are lots of cartoons and caricatures in this prints collection, in both English and French, including etchings by Scottish caricaturist John Kay, late-nineteenth-century color lithographs from Vanity Fair, and full-page comics by the French firm of Pellerin and Co. (renamed l'Imagerie d'Epinal). "Cartoons and Caricatures" is one of eight subcategories imposed on the collection and presented to visitors on the home page. Interested in browsing the collection by creator, scenes, or advertisements? For each of these options, there is a connecting page that offers a short paragraph that frames the subject material, followed by a table presentation of relevant collection items. For example, if you visit the advertisements category, did you know that the Homburg pharmaceutical company (and presumably others) distributed portraits of accomplished German physicians with information about various drugs on the back?
The site is easy to navigate and offers good, but not overwhelming, descriptive text to support the online database of prints. The menu bar on the home page is uncluttered and neatly organizes pertinent information. The "About" menu tab describes the collection in more detail than the home page, such as offering information about the various sources that constitute this collection. I quite appreciated the separate menu tab dedicated to printing techniques that reminded me about the differences of engravings and etchings, stipple and mezzotint, as well as lithographs and photographs. Use the drop down menu "Browse Pictures" and you'll find a "Browse All Pictures" option below the site's eight suggested subcategories. This last menu tab seems redundant, as it repeats information located on the home page, but since the menu bar remains constant on every page, it serves to be useful as you click deeper into the site.
So did I find what I was looking for, or better yet, some unexpected materials that I might have missed otherwise? In my opinion, the value of any online collection is linked to how robust the search engine is and to document delivery and readability. This online collection site does both well. I liked the simple search box (with advanced search option) at the top of every page. This meant that I could search the database by print number or by keyword anywhere in the record entry. Given my interest in medical technology, I did a search using the keyword "instrument." Forty-eight images appeared, in thumbnail form with brief identifier tags, allowing me a quick overview before I clicked to enlarge an image and peruse the full record. My search results included portraits, medical scenes, apparatus illustrations, caricatures and cartoons, posters and comics. I viewed a range of items with connections to instruments, including: Robert Cooper's engraved portrait of English otologist John Harrison Curtis, who invented several new instruments for operations on the...