Over the course of three sales at Sotheby’s in London in 1969, the library of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh was dispersed. The Society was founded in 1734 and had built up substantial holdings of important medical and scientific texts. By the mid 1960s, faced with inadequate facilities and changes in the focus of the organization, the decision was made to relinquish the library at auction.
The librarian of the Middleton Health Sciences Library at the time was Helen Crawford, who undertook the task of obtaining as many relevant titles as possible after being contacted by Anthony Rota of the Bertram Rota booksellers firm in London. Due to the amount and complexity of the offerings, she traveled to London to personally attend the sales. Crawford’s efforts in preparing for the auction in Wisconsin, then participating in it in London allowed the University of Wisconsin to successfully acquire a substantial portion of the books offered. She wrote an engaging account of her experiences for the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association in 1970, describing the sale as “a protracted courtship of a lot of books, with all the conventional elements of suspense, competition, pursuit over great distances, and, finally, conquest.”
Crawford went to London with definite priorities in mind: “First, to acquire titles not available in the library in any form or edition; second, to strengthen subject fields in which we are already strong, such as anatomy, physiology, and neurology; and third, to fill in titles lacking in the works of authors already well represented in the library.” With the Rota firm bidding on her behalf, a great many of the titles available at the three sales in February, July, and October went to Wisconsin. As Crawford later wrote, “To a considerable extent the condition of the volumes worked to our benefit. Although most of the texts were in good condition (except for such occasional legacies from bygone students as thumbprints and inkspots) the bindings were not. Instead of the signs of mildew I expected from the Edinburgh climate, dryness was more in evidence, and too many of the covers were detached to make these attractive buys for collectors and dealers…. A colleague at Wisconsin who was formerly an officer of the Society claims to be able to tell whether a book was shelved at the back of the building near the candy factory or in the room with a fireplace which belched soot.”
While not in the pristine condition favored by collectors, the books that Crawford obtained at these auctions document a great legacy in medical knowledge and instruction, and the signs of use and handling they exhibit demonstrate centuries of learning. This “working collection” is now gratefully used by students and scholars at the Ebling Library.