Adelaide Hospital Medical Library

As part of the Jubilee 150 celebrations in 1986, the Royal Adelaide Hospital mounted a historical Open Day display. In researching the history of library service to the Royal Adelaide Hospital, the previously undocumented history of South Australia’s first major Medical Library was discovered. This article updates the existing historical accounts of medical library services in South Australia.

Written by Julie Hooke, Jepson Library, Royal Adelaide Hospital, 1986

The Beginnings

From 1870 to 1890, the Adelaide Hospital had a medical library stocked with donations and new purchases from England. At the instigation of Dr (later Sir) Edward Stirling, the collection was transferred to the Public Library and subsequently to the University of Adelaide. The second Hospital Library, known as the Jepson Library, did not come into being until 1965.

The purchase of medical books for the Adelaide Hospital staff, located so far from their traditional library resources, was dealt with at meetings of the Board of Management and documented in their minutes. A picture of the hospital’s first library can be built from there.

The earliest reference to library resources came in December 1867. Library shelving is listed for the new wing to be built. Matron was put in charge of the books which constituted the patients’ library and which were referred to in the Board Minutes at various times. It would seem that the Adelaide Hospital’s dealings with the [South Australian] Institute indicate the latter’s opinion that the place for a Medical Library was at the Hospital, a sentiment presumably shared by Hospital staff, as the sum of £50 was included on the sub estimates for the first time on 8th May 1868 for the commencement of a medical library.

Report of the Select Committee on Management of Adelaide Hospital, South Australian Register, 12 January 1867, page 4

By 1869, a routine for ordering books via the Agent-General in England had been established. In this way, books were obtained with a discount of at least one-third of the published price. Lists of books for purchase were compiled and despatched via the Chief Secretary. The matter of payment for these books is not usually mentioned. However, at the meeting of 13 June 1879, it was decided that the sum of £50 should be put on the estimates for the purpose of enlarging the “Medical Library of reference in connection with the Hospital”. Then again, in January 1882, it was decided that the Chief Secretary should be asked for £10 for the purchase of books. However, the House Committee minutes show that £50 was the annually requested budget in the early 1880s.

Library Rules

In June 1870, the Board appointed the first Library Committee, and rules were drawn up for the safekeeping and issue of the books. It is not known whether some formal notice was made to publicise these rules. However, as the number of medical staff was still very small, publicity was unlikely to be a problem.

The Library, under the care of the Steward, was housed in the Board Room. Shipments of books from England and frequent donations necessitated the purchase of additional shelving in 1881 and 1883.

Purchase of Books

In addition to framing the Library rules, the first Library Committee appointed at the Board Meeting of 17 June 1870 also compiled a list of books to be ordered (as well as an articulated skeleton) from Lewis of Gower Street. (Presumably today’s H.K. Lewis  Co. Ltd.) Source of supply did not seem to be an issue, for when a letter was received in December 1882 from Mr W.C. Rigby, a local bookseller of some note, located at that time in King William Street, requesting that he be supplied with an order for books for the Medical Library, the matter was postponed until after the second meeting in January, and apparently never taken up again.

Books continued to be ordered from England. Presumably, the convenience of dealing with a local bookseller was outweighed by the discount obtained by dealing through the Agent General. Perhaps there was also a touch of nostalgia involved in keeping such a link with the “old country”, which would still have been considered “home” by many of the staff.


Since the time of the monastic libraries, with their chained books, security has always been a problem for libraries. The Adelaide Hospital Medical Library seems to be no exception.

In 1874, it was decided that the keys of the Medical Library should be kept somewhere easily accessible and that anyone who took out a book should write his name and the book’s number on a slip of paper and pin it to the place from which the book was taken.

However, at the Board meeting on 28 July 1876, Dr Wylde’s proposal that the library be locked and the key to the library be in charge of the steward was approved. He also proposed that books should only be issued during office hours and that the date of issue and return be entered in a book formerly used for that purpose. Unfortunately, there is nothing to indicate why the former practice had been discontinued or what led up to the present situation. The Board obviously found merit in the proposal, as this was also carried out.

Library Organization

The minutes of the Hospital Board list the appointments to the Library Committee, which seems not to have had any permanently documented meetings. However, as this was effectively a sub-committee of Board members, reporting to the Board was presumably not a problem. Reports and lists of required books were periodically supplied to the Board. The successive committees comprised:

  • 1870 – Drs RT Wylde, HT Whittell, J Forster
  • 1879 – Drs C Gosse, EW Way, JD Thomas
  • 1883 (February) – Drs Gosse, JD Thomas, EW Way, EC Stirling
  • 1883 (April) – ‘The Medical Committee’ including Dr C Gosse
  • 1884 – Drs C Gosse, JD Thomas, EC Stirling
  • 1889 – Drs A Henry, EC Stirling, EW Way

From April 1883, the Library was in charge of the Medical Committee, which consisted of the Senior Physician, Senior Surgeon and one other member. This probably comprised Drs Thomas, Stirling, and Charles Gosse, the latter being the only one mentioned by name.  The actual duties of a Librarian were undertaken by the hospital stewards or secretaries, as they were variously called. During the documented life of the Library, from 1870 to 1890, this office was filled by the following:

  • 1870-1877 – TH Akroyd (appointment recommended 5 June 1868)
  • 1878-1887 – EH Hallack
  • 1888-1890 – EDJ Haggard
Adelaide Hospital Board of Management, Evening Journal, 14 June 1879, page 2

University of Adelaide Medical School

At the Board meeting of 18 September 1884, a letter from the Registrar of Adelaide University was read, stating that it was the intention of the University to commence a Medical School. They wanted to know what conditions the medical students might be admitted to the practice of the Hospital and on what terms the medical staff would give the necessary clinical instruction. Although the Medical School had its first intake of students in 1885, it was not until 25 March 1887 that any mention was made of Library provision for the students within the Hospital. By this stage, the first students had completed their preclinical years.

Dr Sprod recommended that the students be permitted to use the Medical Library on payment of a fee. The matter was referred to the Medical Committee, which recommended a library fee of one guinea to be paid by all students admitted to the practice of the institution. Dr Way tried to halve the fee, but after some discussion, the original report was adopted, with Dr Way’s amendment that “no books be removed from the institution without special permission of the Board”.

Medical Reference Library

On 5 July 1888, Dr Stirling, a member of the Library Committees of both the Public Library and the Adelaide Hospital, laid before the Library Committee of the Public Library a proposal regarding the formation of a Medical Library as part of the Public Library.  Although further discussion was temporarily postponed, the Public Library Board of Governors adopted the report on 17 August 1888. This was the same day on which Dr Stirling attended a meeting of the Board of the Adelaide Hospital, at which he moved:

that some or all of the books and periodicals now in the Hospital Library be transferred to the Public Library in the event of the Governors of that institution providing accommodation and management for a medical library

Adealide Hospital Board Minutes, 17 August 1888
Adelaide Hospital Board of Management, The South Australian Advertiser, 18 August 1888, page 6

It was resolved that the motion, notice of which had originally been given on 27 July, be adjourned until the next meeting of the Board. The Chief Secretary would also be written to ask if the Government would have any objection to the proposal if the Board agreed to the removal of the books.

The offer of a meeting with the Chief Secretary to “make the necessary explanation” was taken up. Dr Stirling and Mr Graves (Chairman of the Adelaide Hospital Board) attended and presumably made a convincing case, which was not elaborated in writing. Dr Stirling’s resolution was carried out on 31 August. A letter conveying a Minute of the Board relative to the transfer of books and periodicals to the Public Library was written on 4 September 1888.

Public Medical Library

It would appear that the Public Library had a small medical collection, part of which had been in the South Australian Institute Library since 1884. However, the Adelaide Hospital had developed the colony’s major medical collection for the sole use of the hospital’s staff. Unfortunately, this restricted access and many other doctors in the colony couldn’t use the medical library. (The University of Adelaide’s collection was also very small at this time.)

The Adelaide Hospital Medical Library was housed in the Board Room, which would have been inconvenient for a wider borrowing public. The collection may also have been growing too large for the Board Room, which would have solved the space problem. As the Public Library was prepared to allocate an area shortly to be vacated by the Art Gallery, there seemed to be no barrier to the creation of such a library.

Subscription Fee

The annual subscription fee for non-Adelaide Hospital staff was set at two guineas. Registered members of the profession were now allowed to take certain books out of the Library for a limited period for reference and study purposes. Twenty-six subscriptions were received from November to December 1889, even though the actual book transfer did not occur until 27 June 1890.  Although there was supposed to be a manuscript catalogue of the Adelaide Hospital Library available at the time, the only detailed record of the actual contents of the donated collection is now to be found in the Public Library’s Accession Register.

When handed over, the collection totalled 911 volumes plus some unbound periodicals. This brought the total for medical works held by the Public Library in 1889/90 to 1,611. Great hopes were held for this venture, the purpose of which was publicly stated as being to establish a collection of medical periodicals in French, German and English. Support was found amongst country practitioners because of the ease of access to a comprehensive medical collection that was promised. The staff of the Adelaide Hospital, as well as relinquishing their own library, donated the sum of £100 to the project. Dr Stirling encouraged members of the profession to donate books from their own private libraries and believed that before long, there would be a collection of 7,000 volumes.

Subscription Decline

The Annual Report of the Medical Reference Library Committee for 1892 noted that the number of subscribers had been reduced to 16. It was resolved that the members of the medical profession in South Australia

be furnished with a resume of the report and a list of the serial publications with a view of awakening a more widespread interest in the matter.

Medical reference Library Annual Report, 1892

In addition, it was decided that members of the medical profession living beyond a ten-mile radius of Adelaide should have their annual subscription reduced from two guineas to one guinea. In spite of this, the popularity of the medical subscription library declined to the point where there was one subscriber only in 1907, and the viability of such a collection was obviously in question.

It was, therefore, decided that the bulk of this collection should be transferred to the University of Adelaide.

Public Library Board, Daily Herald, 16 July 1910, page 7

University of Adelaide

As a result, some 3,083 volumes were officially handed over to the University Library on 15 July 1910. It was not until 1913 that shelves were purchased to accommodate the books. Unfortunately, with the transfer of the collection, the responsibility to collect medical literature was no longer there.

That was until Sir Henry Newland became involved. Under Sir Henry’s influence, the Medical Library of the University developed as a central medical library with an excellent collection and reputation.  Some of the books from the Adelaide Hospital Medical Library can still be seen among the collection, although some have presumably been weeded out as duplicates either at the Public Library or later at the University.

Postscript – Royal Adelaide Hospital Library

Although the University had the state’s main medical collection, medical students wanted their own library at the Hospital. In the late 1920s and 1930s, the hospital began collecting several journals and had a small collection of books in “Arcadia”, the location of which is still a mystery to later generations.

Hospital staff also wanted books to be easily accessible, and small collections started springing up in Departments. After many efforts and spurred on by the creation of the new Medical Library at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, a journal collection was started in 1961. This was in a room just vacated by the Radiotherapy Department and in which the original Library had been situated from 1870 to 1890. This building was demolished in 1963 as part of the hospital redevelopment.

Edited by Margot Way, CALHN Health Museum