The New York Regional Group/MLA: A Discursive History, by Judith Topper (1985)

Contents

Introduction
Organization of the New York Regional Group
Bylaws and First Officers
Organizational Progress
Early Activities
Meeting Topics
Relations with MLA
Newsletter
Job Placement
Support of MLA Scholarship Fund
New Committees
Financial Management
Adoption of New Group Structure
References

Introduction

In the late 1940’s, the advisability of sanctioning regional meetings to be held between the Annual Meetings of the Medical Library Association was a subject of disagreement in the organization. During the war, a regional meeting held in Philadelphia because of restrictions on travel had met with criticism from some MLA members. Nevertheless, other regional meetings were held in the postwar period, including one at the New York Academy of Medicine. However, these meetings had no sanction in the MLA bylaws, and many members continued to disapprove of them.

At MLA’s Annual Meeting in 1947, Mildred Jordan of Emory University Medical Library read a paper presenting the results of a survey of the administrative heads of the 253 MLA member libraries on the subject of regional meetings [1]. Of the 157 respondents, 86 were “absolutely for,” 22 “absolutely against,” and 49 undecided. All agreed that the paramount consideration was whether such meetings would strengthen the national organization. Among the arguments of those opposed were: regional meetings would diminish the importance of the central organization; there would be fragmentation and encouragement of provincialism (one respondent cited the “New York-New England axis” as being particularly provincial); the organization was too small and scattered; attendees would be drawn from the national meetings, which attracted only 150-200 persons at that time; regions with fewer libraries would have poor meetings; and supervision of regional groups would place additional demands on MLA’s officers. Those in favor argued that the regional meetings already held had been successful; they could deal with practical and local problems, and nurture new libraries, especially in hospitals; they would be useful to the many members, especially junior staff, who could not afford to go to national meetings; they would help meet the need for personal professional contacts; and they would encourage cooperative planning on regional matters such as interlibrary loans, cooperative buying, and union catalogs.

Janet Doe of the New York Academy of Medicine Library put the controversy into perspective in an editorial in the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association [2]. Opposition to regional meetings was necessary in the early days of MLA, she wrote, to permit its survival and growth into a unified, cohesive association. Early membership was small and scattered, and if it had been permitted to fragment into even smaller groups the profession of medical librarianship might have been “swallowed up by other types of librarianship of greater and age and reputation.” By 1950, however, the Association had grown in numbers and strength to 915 member throughout the United States and Canada. At this stage, regional meetings would strengthen the national association rather than weaken it.

The sentiment of the membership had clearly swung in favor of regional meetings, and in 1950 MLA acknowledged this by amending its bylaws to permit such meetings, provided that they did not conflict with the Annual Meeting in time, expense, or size (not over one-fifth of the MLA membership participating). It was also specified that officers and committee chairmen should be voting members of MLA.


Organization of the New York Regional Group

In New York City, the impetus toward local meetings had become strong even before the bylaws change. On March 9, 1949, a “New York Regional Meeting” was held at The New York Academy of Medicine. Attendees paid $2.75 for cocktails, dinner, and a talk on handling the index crisis. Predictably, the group also discussed the pros and cons of holding regular New York regional meetings of the Medical Library Association.

After the adoption of the MLA bylaws change, the New York group quickly began the process of formal organization. On November 20, 1950 another meeting was held at the Academy of Medicine, and the flyer announcing it used the name “New York Regional Group” for the first time. The principal speaker was Mary Louise Marshall, Past President of MLA. The cost of cocktails and dinner had gone up to $4, although attendees could lower this by a dollar by forgoing the cocktail hour. Apparently few persons did so, as is suggested by this account by Gertrude Annan, who was working at that time in the Rare Book Room of the Academy:

My memories of the first dinner meeting held at the Academy are of people rather than events, and of my real concern for the Rare Book Room where a seemingly endless cocktail party was held. Dinner was so delayed, the pleasant haze so evident, that I recall the advice of one member in regard to preventing rings from wet glasses damaging the table. Industriously we obeyed her and rubbed masses of cigarette ashes, but the scars are still visible [3].


Bylaws and First Officers

At the time of the November 1950 meeting, the Regional Group was functioning under an Acting Executive Committee, informally organized because there were as yet no bylaws. Thomas Fleming of Columbia University was Chairman of this Committee. At a meeting on April 14, 1951 at the New York University Faculty Club, which was attended by 90 people, a set of bylaws was presented. The Group’s purpose was to be “to stimulate and strengthen interest in the Medical Library Association by providing for interim meetings within this geographical region, for the exchange of information and ideas both professional and social.” Membership was open to persons who were or had been actively engaged in library work in medical and allied scientific fields in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut region. Officers were to be a Chairman, Secretary, and Treasurer, with an Executive Committee comprising the officers and four other elected members. There were to be two meetings a year.

The bylaws were adopted and the first official slate of officers was elected on November 17,1951 at a meeting at the Town Hall Club. Candidates for the Chairmanship were Janet Doe, Thomas Fleming, and J. Alan MacWatt, Librarian of the Lederle Laboratories. MacWatt was elected. Myrl Ebert of the New York University College of Medicine Library was chosen to be Secretary and Gilbert Clausman, at that time Reference Assistant at the New York Academy of Medicine, became Treasurer. Elected to the Executive Committee were Gertrude Annan, Eva Hawkins (National Health Library), Eleanor Fair (Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.), and Margaret Kinney (Bronx V.A. Hospital). It is worthy of note that among the topics considered that day were the MLA Exchange and the certification of medical librarians. Secretary Ebert’s minutes record that these were both followed by “spirited discussions.”


Organizational Progress

The process of organization moved along briskly, and by January 1952 six committees (Nominating, Bylaws, Membership, Program, Publicity, and Serials) had been set up and chairmen appointed. Almost immediately, however, the geographical boundaries of the group contracted. In March 1952, Henrietta T. Perkins of the Yale University Medical Library wrote to ask for a copy of the bylaws of the New York Regional Group to serve as a model for a group that had just been formed in Connecticut. The New York and the Connecticut Regional Groups were briefly reunited for a joint meeting in October 1955 at Yale University, when Gertrude Annan and Professor John Fulton spoke on rare books.

Although organizational matters generally proceeded smoothly, there were occasional problems. In 1955, there was confusion concerning arrangements for the Spring Meeting, and the Program Chairman resigned in protest. Letters among the group’s officers record that the complexities of running an organization frequently caused frustration. After trying to open a bank account for the NYRG, Elizabeth G. Boykin, Secretary, wrote to Rita Sue King: “It never ceases to amaze me how many forms are involved in even the simplest transaction.” In 1958, an extra person was inadvertently elected to the Executive Committee. Jeane E. Foulke, Secretary, wrote in a positive vein about this to the Chairman, Lois B. Miller: “It is probably well to have, five — certainly will do no harm.” The need to revise the mailing list caused Erich Meyerhoff, Chairman, to write in 1963 to the Treasurer, Paul Merrigan: “Not a day passes by that we don’t hear from some irate customer who complains that his sex has been changed, or some other serious difficulty.”


Early Activities

Shortly after its founding, the NYRG set about trying to further its interests in its local area. In April 1952, the Executive Committee wrote to Dr. Lowell A. Martin, Associate Dean of the Columbia University School of Library Service, asking that Columbia offer an evening course in medical library administration, in addition to its daytime course. Dr. Martin replied stating his concern that offering both day and evening courses would cause enrollment in both to fall below the desired level of 12 to 15 students. Apparently the matter was not satisfactorily resolved, because at the fall meeting in 1956 Helen Kovacs reported on a questionnaire concerning a proposed course in medical librarianship to be given at Columbia in 1957.

Another early project involved the Serials Committee, which developed a plan for setting up a clearinghouse for data on serials: ‘births, deaths, changes in title, format, etc.” The Committee urged the NYRG Chairman to encourage the national organization to adopt the idea.


Meeting Topics

The subjects discussed at the meetings in the early 1950’s are of interest for the light they shed on the interests of the membership at that time. At the meeting in April 1951 these subjects included new indexes and abstracting tools, and mechanical aids in medical libraries. In November of that year, the group considered, among other topics, the problems of small medical libraries. Other subjects of meetings in the early 1950’s included the handling of ephemera, book selection, free and inexpensive materials, and presenting the library to management and users.

Physicians were frequent speakers at the early meetings. In 1952, Dr. Clarence Oberndorf addressed the membership on the place of fiction in the psychiatric collection. In 1953, Dr. Frederick Mettler of Columbia spoke on “Research in psychosurgery and its literature needs.” Later that year, Dr. Claude E. Heaton of the N.Y.U. – Bellevue Medical Center chose as his subject, “Early American obstetricians and their books.” An international note was struck when Mrs. Nesta Dean, Librarian of the Department of Pharmacology of Oxford University, spoke on “Origins of the oldest medical journals.”

In 1956, the NYRG surveyed its members about the subjects they most wanted to hear discussed at meetings. The results, in order of preference, were bibliographic services (32 votes), mechanical aids (20), book selection (19), medical periodicals (19), library administration (18), indexing (17), abstracting (16), circulation (15), and publications for librarians (14). The non library subject of greatest interest was the history of medicine. To a question on preferred meeting places, the respondents cited New York City restaurants, hospitals, and medical schools. One wishful thinker suggested the Starlite Roof of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.


Relations with MLA

The increasing vigor of the Regional Group was demonstrated by its invitation in 1954 to the national organization to hold its 1957 Annual Meeting in New York City. The acceptance of this invitation was announced to the membership in April, 1955, As its contribution to the Annual Meeting, which was held May 5-10, 1957, the NYRG prepared and distributed a directory of local libraries. The sum of $243 for printing the directory was provided by American Cyanamid, parent company of Lederle, whose Librarian had been the Regional Group’s first Chairman.

Interaction between the NYRG and the national MLA was not extensive in the early years. In May, 1952, a letter was received from William D. Postell, President-Elect of MLA, requesting a report of the activities of the Regional Group. “All reports are limited to one, single page double-spaced,” Postell specified.

Secretary Myrl Ebert responded, presumably within these limits. In 1953, MLA again requested an Annual Report, but this time the length had doubled to one typewritten page, single spaced.

The parent organization sought in other ways to maintain contact with the fledging group. In November 1952, Estelle Brodman, Editor of the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, wrote to MacWatt asking for photographs of the NYRG’s officers or speakers to print in the journal. Presumably none were sent, however, since none appeared.

Correspondence between the NYRG and MLA reveals some little-known sidelights of MLA history. Early in 1958, Mary Fenlon Kaylor, then Chairman of the NYRG, wrote to Henrietta T. Perkins, Secretary of MLA, requesting nine copies of the MLA Constitution, since none on the Executive Committee had one. Ms. Perkins replied that she was sending copies of the Charter and Bylaws, but that the Constitution was nowhere to be found and she thought is might have been abolished. She amended this, however, in a postscript. The Constitution had been published in the MLA Directory in 1950, but copies were not available because they had been lost in a flood at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The relationship between the parent and regional organization was occasionally rocky. In September 1958, Mrs. Kaylor wrote to Otilia Goode, Regional Liaison Officer of MLA, complaining of a lack of communication:

I have never quite understood what “liaison” there is among the Regional Groups of the Medical Library Association. There is seldom, if ever, any information available as to the scope and location of the various groups; the officers of those groups; the way they are organized; the full program, etc…. With that in mind, I am enclosing a copy of our fall program for you to see. If you think that other chairmen would like to have a copy, I shall be glad to send them one — when I know who they are.

The letter concluded on a more positive note:

You have my every good wish for a very successful appointment as Liaison Officer, and I want you to know that our group will be happy to cooperate in any way possible to keep MLA on the highest possible basis.

The NYRG again played host to MLA in 1971 at what proved to be the best-attended Annual Meeting to that date. The Regional Group again produced A Directory of Health Sciences Libraries of Greater New York, and also presented a $1000 check to the Scholarship Fund. On the lighter side, it hosted a party at a night club, La Martinique. Reactions from attendees at the Annual Meeting were enthusiastic. Janet Doe, who was presented with an orchid corsage by the NYRG, wrote about her pleasure in greeting old and dear friends. Gertrude Annan mentioned how good it was to have an updated directory … “And it is handsome, too!” Congratulatory messages on the careful planning and organization on the happy time that was had by all came in from Ann Kerker, William Postell, Erika Love, Sarah C. Brown, and MLA members throughout the country.


NEWSLETTER

The subject of a newsletter for the NYRG arose early. A letter from Janet Doe to J. Alan MacWatt dated April 19, 1951 suggested a mimeographed newsletter, and proposed that it publish a summary of the hours and interlibrary loan rules of the various local libraries.

Nearly 13 years passed, however, before a newsletter appeared. The first issue of An Occasional Newsletter was circulated in January 1964, written by Sonia Gruen of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. It consisted of one side of a legal size sheet of paper. Among the news items reported was the formation of a Continuing Education Committee, whose first project would be to organize a course on data processing for libraries under the direction of the International Business Machines Corporation. This issue also announced that Dr. Martin Cummings had been appointed Director of the National Library of Medicine, succeeding Dr. Frank Rogers.

The Occasional Newsletter lived up to its name, appearing again only four times between 1964 and the end of 1968. The publication acquired a new title and a quarterly publication schedule in January 1969, when volume 1, number 1 of the New York Regional Group News appeared. This issue, too, included news relating to automation, announcing a seminar to be held the next month on the application of computer techniques to serials control.

During the years that followed, the News presented information, not only about NYRG activities, but also about the other medical library groups that were developing in the area. The November 1969 issue announced that the New York Academy of Medicine had begun to receive grant funds from the National Library of Medicine to serve as the Regional Medical Library for New York and Northern New Jersey. The News initiated a calendar of local meetings and activities, including those of the Regional Medical Library, the Medical Library Center of New York and the numerous area groups, as the geographically-based consortia in New York City and its surrounding localities were called. It served as an important communications link among all these groups during their formative years, since most of them, at least initially, had no publications of their own.


Job Placement

The archives of the NYRG indirectly record several important changes in the profession of medical librarianship. Although it is hard to remember now, in the 1950’s there was an acute shortage of medical librarians. An amusing episode illustrating this involved a librarian from Delmar, N.Y., who wrote to Gilbert Clausman on April 19,1952 enclosing her membership dues and asking if the NYRG had a placement officer, as she was interested in obtaining a position. Nine days later, on April 28, J. Alan MacWatt wrote back welcoming her to the group, and enclosing an application for a job in cataloging and reference at Lederle.

A placement service did not exist in the NYRG at the time the librarian from Delmar inquired about it, but it was suggested again by Mary Kaylor in 1959, and its creation is reported in the January 1964 issue of the newsletter. Mrs. Kaylor administered this service for a number of years, after which it was taken over by Samuel Waddell. By the middle 1970’s, however, the employment situation in medical librarianship had changed. Waddell reported that, although he had a file of 93 resumes, only six prospective employers had called him in 1976. At the fall meeting in 1977, the NYRG voted to suspend the Placement Office “while present conditions persist.” It was subsequently moved to the New York Academy of Medicine for a couple of years, but it never again served a useful function.


Support of MLA Scholarship Fund

The change in employment opportunities is also reflected in the NYRG’s shifting position on raising funds for the MLA Scholarship Fund. In its early years, and until the late 1970’s, the NYRG was enthusiastic in its support. In 1971, the NYRG News reported that $996.54 had been collected by the NYRG’s Scholarship Committee toward a $1000 gift to MLA. As late as 1975, John LoSasso, MLA Executive Director, wrote to acknowledge a contribution and stated, “Your Group has, in most years, contributed more than the rest of our regions combined.”

Only a few years later, however, the situation had changed. At the fall meeting in October 1977, Jane Port, Chairman of the NYRG Scholarship Committee, reported that raising money for scholarship no longer seemed an appropriate priority for the organization. She recommended suspension of the Scholarship Committee’s activities until such time as more entry level positions became available, or until the emergence of viable support programs for the continuing education of practicing librarians. At the Fall 1978 meetings, the membership voted to delete the Scholarship Committee from its bylaws.


New Committees

While placement and scholarship activities were winding down, the NYRG found new outlets for its energies. In the 1970’s, it became evident that hospital librarians, a burgeoning group at that time, felt that their needs and concerns were not adequately served. In 1973, a number of hospital librarians petitioned the NYRG Executive Committee to establish a standing committee that would concentrate on their interests and represent them in the organization’s activities. The Executive Committee agreed, and the Committee on Small Health Science Libraries was formed, with Jeanne Becker as its first chairman. It quickly became one of the most active committees, and served as a forum for development of leadership talent for the NYRG and the national MLA.

The impetus for establishing another of the NYRG’s most effective committees came from another organization entirely. In 1977, the Health Information Libraries of Westchester, a suburban consortium, recommended that the NYRG take on the task of coordinating activities on political and legislative matters of interest to medical librarians in the region. The subject was studied by an ad hoc committee chaired by Lynn Kasner, and at the October meeting the membership approved the creation of a Legislation Committee, which was to be a joint undertaking with the Upstate New York and Ontario Regional Group. The Joint Legislation Committee has served effectively since that time to inform the membership and mobilize activity to promote legislation favorable to medical libraries on the state and national levels.


Financial Management

The financial history of the NYRG began very simply and became, predictably, more complex over the years. The bylaws adopted at the November 1951 meeting set the dues at one dollar, and the first Treasurer, Gilbert Clausman, recalls that they were collected on the spot and he took the money away in a cigar box. The dues remained the same until 1967, when they were raised to two dollars. Three years later, in 1970, they took a more substantial jump to five dollars.

Some of the early correspondence on financial matters that has survived relates to refunds for alcoholic beverages served at meetings. A 1958 letter from Mary Kaylor, Chairman, to Rita Sue King, Treasurer, enclosing a check for three dollars, notes that a bottle of mixed martinis had been left over at the Fall Meeting, and she had sold it to a member. In December 1966, $67.18 was refunded to the NYRG by a liquor dealer for bottles returned unopened after a meeting.

Refunds for expenses within the organization were not always so expeditiously handled. In April 1965, a bill was sent by Gilbert Clausman to the Treasurer, Paul Merrigan, which included a 73 cent item for place cards used at the Spring Meeting. Complications ensued, and after considerable correspondence the 73 cents was refunded at the end of October by the succeeding Treasurer, Donald Clyde.

By 1976, inflation and increased group activity were putting a severe strain on the financial viability of the NYRG. At the Fall Meeting in November, an ad hoc committee under the chairmanship of Sonya Wohl Mirsky was appointed to prepare a budget for the organization, which had not previously had one, and to deal with several related matters. The committee’s report found that the organization was “hovering on the brink of insolvency.” The line budget that the committee had prepared indicated that income from dues would not cover the anticipated expenditures for 1977/78. Accordingly, at the October 1977 meeting, the membership approved the budget structured and a dues increase to $10 beginning in 1978. In addition, the bylaws were amended to permit the appointment of an auditor.


Adoption of New Group Structure

At this same meeting, a report was presented on proposed changes in the MLA group structure. The NYRG Executive Committee, under the chairmanship of C. Robin LeSueur, had met during the previous summer with Erich Meyerhoff, a member of the Ad Hoc Committee to study MLA Group Structure. Following this meeting, the Executive committee had expressed several misgivings in a letter to MLA President Gilbert Clausman. The intent of the Ad Hoc Committee’s report was found to be acceptable but changes were suggested in the wording of some of the recommendations, which were felt to infringe upon local autonomy.

In 1977, then, when the NYRG was putting its financial affairs on a sounder footing, and making major changes in its scholarship and placement activities in response to a changed professional climate, it was also considering the most important change of all — from Regional Group to a Chapter of the Medical Library Association. This came to fruition in 1981, when the NYRG membership voted to accept a new set of bylaws incorporating Chapter status.

In its thirty-year existence, 1951 to 1981, the NYRG had borne out Janet Doe’s prediction that the sanction of regional meetings would strengthen the Medical Library Association. The Regional Group fostered professional contacts, dealt effectively with local issues, provided a training ground for leadership, enhanced the role of hospital librarians, and provided a forum for the involvement of librarians unable to attend national meetings. By permitting a portion of its organizational energies to be expended in the regions, MLA was enabled eventually to coalesce into a more dynamic and representative organization under its new group structure.


References

1. Jordan M. Regional meetings for the Medical Library Association. Bull Med Libr Assoc 1947; 35:3O9-20

2. Doe J. the new venture: regional meetings. Bull Med Libr Assoc 1950; 38:273-4

3. Annan G. Untitled. New York Regional Group/MLA News 1977 May, 9 (2):4