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Robert B. Austin

The interview with Bob Austin opens and closes with a conversation about Sheridan, Wyoming which was his boyhood home and the place to which he retired. What lies in between is an insider's view of the Army Medical Library from 1928 until its transformation into the National Library of Medicine. After Bob's thirty-three year career at the Army Medical Library, he completed various appointments with medical school libraries, often to select early American medical books from their stacks for segregation in special collections.

Bob's entry into librarianship was the direct result of encouragement from a public librarian for whom he worked while in high school. At her suggestion, he took a civil service examination which led to an appointment at the Army Medical Library in Washington, D.C. The annual salary of $1,440 was no more than he was earning in Wyoming, but Washington offered the opportunity to complete college and library school at night. (As it turned out, however, he would not complete a library degree until 1947 at Western Reserve while on assignment in Cleveland.) His first of many positions at the Army Medical Library was as a page. It was a formidable task due to the lack of organization. The card catalog was unreliable and incomplete. Books were assigned permanent shelf and section locations and this was not noted on the outside of the books. The arrangement of the stacks was based loosely on subject and was highly dependent on the space and shelf size available. Journals were shelved according to use and language. Bob recalled the less-than-ideal working conditions in an old building with a coal furnace, leaky ceilings, gaps in windows, and lighting so poor that the library could not be open in the evenings. He relates a story about a fire that was averted by quick thinking and action by Janet Doe.

Bob attributed the state of affairs to the small staff (and one that was more interested in scholarly work based on the marvelous collection than arranging its use for others), civil service recruitment, the low priority of the library within the Army, and a revolving door of directors. It seems the directors were assigned to the position within four years of retirement. Bob credited Colonel Jones with beginning a change for the better. "The timing was right for Colonel Jones, because he had the temperament. He had the interest. He had the drive. He knew which direction that library should go. He really rolled up his sleeves and went into it, and of course he was blocked in almost every way he turned for lack of money...He had very little support from the staff..." Reorganization of the library was accelerated as a result of its increasing importance during the war, the leadership of Brad Rogers, advocacy by influential physicians, and recommendations from a panel of librarians. The panel consisted of Keyes Metcalf, Mary Louise Marshall, Janet Doe, Andrew Osborn, Quincy Mumford, and Tom Fleming.

On his own initiative and time, Bob scoured the Army Medical Library for 16th-18th century books which were shelved with the general collection. These books were transferred to Cleveland for safekeeping during the war. "...all of these people were concerned about their treasures...So, Colonel Jones was right along with everybody, you know, to do this. So all of these places had their own individual solutions. Some went to caves. Some went to university sites down south. The national museum was underground someplace. Colonel Jones thought that somewhere in the middle of the United States would be safer, and he went to Cleveland and found this space at the Allen Memorial Library." This collection later became the basis for the History of Medicine Division. Bob's military service during World War II was shortened at Colonel Jones request. "It was because of my knowledge of the collection, that I was the only one that could find things. And the Reference staff depended on me, and the mail requests coming in to interlibrary loan depended on me. He made this sound very convincing, that I was indispensable. He asked for the discharge on September 8, 1943...Within a matter of days, I was called up to the Center to be processed for discharge. This was done for the convenience of the government, Army Regulation Paragraph so-and-so..." Bob's lasting contribution is Early American Medical Imprints, 1668-1820. He expressed amusement that his checklist, a labor of love for fifteen years, sold for $1.00 when first published by the Government Printing Office. A microform copy of the checklist was made in the 70s with complete text from over 1,500 of the listed works.

Robert B. Austin

Interview Date: 
October 9-10, 1980
Interviewer: 
Estelle Brodman, AHIP, FMLA
Number of pages: 
90 leaves