This Week in History


A New Chapter in Library History

For the week of Monday, December 7, 2015

On December 10, 1858, Margaret Ridley Charlton was born in La Prairie, near Montréal. She became the Assistant Medical Librarian at McGill University's Medical Library where she turned the page in the organization of medical libraries and in the field of librarianship for women.

Portrait of Margaret Ridley Charlton (date unknown)
© Osler Library / McGill University

As a young librarian in the 1890s, Charlton travelled to Massachusetts to attend a summer course in librarianship at Amherst College. There, she was trained in the Dewey Decimal System, a new system of cataloguing library books, by its creator Melvil Dewey.

In 1895, she became the Assistant Medical Librarian at the McGill University Medical Library, a prestigious position that she held for 19 years. Her determination proved invaluable in modernizing the institution. She created user statistics, designed reading rooms, and meticulously catalogued the vast inventory using the Dewey Decimal System. She added 10,000 new volumes to the library’s inventory by persuading authors and publishers to donate rather than to sell her their books. A feisty spirit lay behind her work ethic. A co-worker joked that one student was so afraid of Charlton that he asked others to borrow books for him!

The 75th anniversary coin of the Medical Library Association features its founders
© David S. Crawford / McGill University

Charlton’s influence extended beyond Canada’s borders. She noted the old-fashioned cataloguing and management methods of medical libraries throughout North America, and expressed these concerns to William Osler, a former McGill graduate and one of the founders of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Charlton and Osler collaborated with George Gould, American physician and the editor of Philadelphia Medical Journal, to establish the Medical Library Association on May 2, 1898. The Association's purpose was to promote medical libraries and to sustain a network of medical literature among its members. Charlton served as the first secretary from 1898 to 1903.

Margaret Ridley Charlton (1858-1931) was designated a National Historic Person in 2003, for modernizing medical libraries in Canada and for opening up the profession of librarianship to women.

To learn more about libraries in Canada, read The Library of Parliament and the Men Who Loved It and Lights, Camera, Action! Shhhhh it’s a Library! in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada! As well, click here to learn more about the work of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

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