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Sewell, Winifred (AHIP, FMLA)

Winifred Sewell is best known for her contributions to the subject control of the pharmaceutical literature. She worked at Squibb Institute for Medical Research and was a subject heading specialist at the National Library of Medicine during MEDLARS implementation and later head of the Drug Literature Program. Win says her “interest is the interface between the scientist as a producer of literature and the scientist as a user of literature... how we facilitate that is, I think, actually at the core of librarianship and that's where I want to be.”

After graduating from Columbia with a Masters in Library Science in 1940, Win worked at the Wellcome Research Laboratories for two years while continuing to take chemistry and other science courses. In 1946 she moved to Squibb where she was able to continue with her interest in indexing the literature: “they were using strict chemical indexing rules, which was, I felt, the way indexing for pharmaceuticals ought to be done.” She also enjoyed the personal reference contact with scientists and even remembers “solving a [chemistry] reference question by smell.”

In 1961 she went to the National Library of Medicine as a subject heading specialist bringing her 18 years of indexing and abstracting expertise in pharmacy and work with end users. “We got a lot of things into that first [MEDLARS] structure that were really quite revolutionary...the check tag - I think the major thing that was original with me was the check tag...and the tree structure.” She also remembers that she recommended removing subheadings at one point and the negative reaction of the profession. “Subheadings [were] a precision device...I was wrong when we took them out.” But she adds that the recommendation had been a risk and she went ahead with it, and “I just am impatient with people who are not willing to stick their necks out.”

From 1965-1970 she headed the National Library of Medicine Drug Literature Program and later taught librarianship at Columbia where she aimed at instilling accuracy and quality control in her students' approach to reference. She has also had an active consulting career. Win was active in the Special Library Association and heavily involved for many years in the Pharmaceutical Section production of Unlisted Drugs, for which she won a Special Library Association Award in 1966. She served as Special Library Association president from 1960-1961. She was also involved in the Medical Library Association, chaired many sections and groups, received the 1976 Ida and George Eliot prize for the Guide to Drug Information, and was elected a Medical Library Association Fellow in 1976. In 1979, she received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science. She has remained active in the American Association of Pharmacy Educational Resources Section with the “objective of perhaps influencing faculty and certainly letting the faculty know that we are around and that we are as concerned with educational objectives as they are.”

After many years in the profession, Win still says “being a librarian is the most exciting thing in the world,” but cautions that “the librarian is assisting with the means to the end and the functions of the librarian are not an end in themselves....[We need to] get information to the place its going to be used.”

Winifred Sewell Oral History Index

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