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The Osler Library rises from the ashes

An award-winning recovery effort

McGill University Osler Library

The late Sir William Osler, MDCM 1872, has been described as the father of modern medicine, and since 1929 he’s had a permanent home at McGill. Or rather, he did until Friday, July 13, 2018.

On that day a four-alarm fire struck the McIntyre Medical Building. As a result, the nearly 90-year-old Osler Library of the History of Medicine, located on McIntyre's third floor, was infiltrated by smoke and water.

“The Osler Library is one of the top repositories in the world for those who wish to study the history of Western medicine,” says Dr. Mary Hague-Yearl, its head librarian. Its 100,000 works include nearly 8,000 titles from Osler's personal collection, as well as his notebooks and correspondence. The library’s holdings cover a chronological span from the 7th century BCE to the present, and it is internationally-recognized as having a strong collection of works on anatomy, as well as important archival collections like the Wilder Penfield Fonds.

The space itself, with its stained-glass windows, carved-wood bookcases and classic throw rugs, has been described as a “pearl in an oyster”; it even serves as the resting place for Osler's ashes.

The response

Emergency response to the fire was swift; no one was harmed, and Osler’s initial bequest remained pristine. Safeguarding the Library and its collection was top priority.

Soon after it was safe to enter, the Osler Library Recovery Team was born. Comprised of over 30 librarians, archivists, art curators, and administrative and support staff, the team worked for weeks with an external restoration service to pack up the Library’s entire contents. The small fraction of materials that had been exposed to water were freeze-dried and then assessed to determine the extent of damage. The majority of the items in the collection had to be individually wrapped to prepare for relocation. Despite the enormity of this effort, library service to researchers resumed six weeks after the fire.

The circulating collection is now temporarily located in the basement of the Redpath Library Building, while the rare collection is accessible for consultation in the McLennan Library’s fourth floor, where over two kilometres of shelving space was freed up within Rare Books and Special Collections.

The aftermath

The Osler Library remains displaced but functioning as usual.

“We really want people to know that that we continue to serve readers, and that we are open to all,” says Hague-Yearl. “Because we have materials that are rare, or which do not exist elsewhere in the world, we have a responsibility to make those items available to the community.”

In May 2019 the Library played a prominent role in organizing local events for the American Osler Society’s annual meeting. Then in October the Recovery Team’s administrative and support staff were recognized with the McGill Principal’s Award. “It was such a well-deserved effort,” says Hague-Yearl.

McGill University Osler Library before the fire

The Osler Library before the Friday, July 13, 2018 fire.

McGill University Osler Library during renovations

The Osler Library during the recovery effort.

McGill University Osler Library relocation

Unpacking The Osler Library's collection after relocation to Rare Books and Special Collections.

McGill University Osler Library post renovations

The Osler Library after the recovery effort's completion.

The future

The Faculty of Medicine is taking full advantage of McIntyre’s post-fire renovations, with multiple construction projects planned. Upgrades to the Osler Library space are compete, and dynamic classrooms will be constructed nearby; both will open in summer 2021.

Hague-Yearl looks forward to the greater exposure that the new teaching space will bring. She describes the response from donors and friends as “incredible. We derive our energy and our enthusiasm from our supporters. They’ve expressed concern and relief, and asked for updates. Above all, they have offered moral support at what has been – and continues to be – a difficult time. None of our achievements would be possible without their help, for which we are most grateful.”

In the meantime, the storied Library remains a quiet sanctuary. “It will wait with anticipation until it is reunited with its books and with its people,” says Hague-Yearl.