I have been asked repeatedly what constitutes "a good working library" for the ordinary physician. The question can not be answered in a few words, but a reply may be conveyed in an indirect manner. A medical man, if he have a taste for it, may go on collecting books all his life, and die unsatisfied.
A library is to some extent a luxury, and does not necessarily ensure a lucrative patronage. A physician with great tact may, without books, excel a competitor rich in literature. However, other conditions being equal, the practitioner with "a good working library" has advantages which tell upon a competitor who is bare of literature.
Books in a certain sense are to the physician what weapons are to the soldier, or tools to the mechanic. A library, then, is indispensable to the practitioner of medicine; but what shall enter into its composition? The recent graduate usually starts off in professional life with a few "text-books," so called, and a subscription to some favorite "Journal." These will answer for a year or two, yet they should not do longer than the time mentioned. Several different journals are at length needed, in which are represented the peculiar views of the several "Schools" of medicine. In these periodicals the practitioner will observe from month to month what medical publications are "noticed." He need not necessarily pay any attention to what the editor says, but he is to consider whether the book is an object worth possessing. Some books are not worth shelf-room.
The young practitioner studies medicine in a general way, and later in life he devotes attention to the literature of special subjects. He seeks brochures and monographs, as well as the largest works written upon individual topics.
A physician of some prosperity in middle life, takes pride in having his library interspersed with a modicum of English productions, mostly London prints. These works have a charm that is felt, but not easily described. The American re-print, bound in the inevitable sheep, is common in all its features; and is too often marred by the "notes" of the presumptuous publisher's "editor."
The elderly physician of pecuniary substance and elegant ease possesses peculiarities in the acquisition of books. He has several "sets" of well established journals, and all bound in annual installments. These occupy much shelf-room, and lend to the "study" an air of respectability. Old books are sought, and prized in accordance with their age. Many of the ideas they contain have been exploded by modern investigations, yet it is truly astonishing how much recent authors have "inherited" from their predecessors.
It may be remarked in this connection, that a small library "well in hand" is of more advantage than a large one which is superficially studied. However, this is not intended as an apology for stingy souls who are glad of an excuse for never buying books. There are many practitioners who imagine they are too busy to read; and, having a large patronage, cheat themselves into the belief that books are an over-rated luxury.
It is to be hoped that there are few individuals so conceited as to imagine "they know it all," or so bigoted as to affect to despise new publications on the ground that a purchase of them would be virtually admitting that some progress had been made.
The enterprising physician reads the current scientific literature of the day, and thus is entitled to rank among educated men. The people are becoming more and more enlightened, and readily see through the shallow pretensions of the "doctor" whose stock-in-trade consists in a multitude of "big-words" and "vital mysteries."
The physician who expects to make available what he reads, should keep an alphabetical index of all the topics likely to need future reference. When an interesting article on any subject is read, it should be indexed at once, so that ten years hence the material could as readily be found as a word in a dictionary. After the chief topics in medicine have been read, indexed, and notes added, the student begins to feel that his library is something more than a pile of books,—it is a part of himself, and adds to his strength and influence.
The Eclectic Medical Journal, Vol. XXXIV, 1874, was edited by John M. Scudder, M.D.