Statistics from Altmetric.com
On Friday 13 July 2018, a roof fire caused significant damage to the McIntyre Medical Building at McGill University. While the effects of the fire were far-reaching, the impact upon the Osler Library of the History of Medicine was arguably the most prominent. This article recounts the immediate response to the fire, assessments of the damage, and the monumental recovery effort that allowed the library to resume services – albeit in another location– within weeks. While summarising plans to restore the library to its location in the McIntyre Medical Building, the article also reflects upon the deeper meaning of Sir William Osler’s library and suggests that a catastrophe can beturned into an opportunity for positive change.
The McIntyre fire
On 13 July 2018, a fire broke out on the rooftop terrace that sat atop the Osler Library extension of the McIntyre Medical Building, McGill University. It was one of so many improbable instances one hears about: a catastrophic result brought about by the careless disposal of a cigarette (see figure 1). At the time the fire occurred, the Osler Library was in the midst of planning several events to commemorate the centenary of Sir William Osler’s death, on 29 December 2019. Although the exigency of the situation disrupted that process and all other operations at the library, the feelings that surpass all others are of gratitude and relief.
Before the fire was out, a dedicated and knowledgeable team had been mobilised. The first responders from the Service de sécurité incendie de Montréal (SIM) were aware of the value of the library and took steps to safeguard its collections from within the building as soon as it was safe to do so. As the roof was destroyed and its drains failed, water entered the library; fortunately for our collections, the fire was external, so heat within the Osler never reached the level required to activate the sprinklers. Nonetheless, since water did start to leak in through the compromised drains, members of the SIM placed tarps on top of the bookshelves in the area housing the circulating collection to protect it from water and later covered shelves and work surfaces throughout the library with plastic sheets, as a precaution against the risk of further water infiltration.
Over the weekend of 14–15 July, several additional steps were taken to protect the collections, just as the situation was being assessed. Notably, a preliminary investigation confirmed that—despite the roof being destroyed—there was no fire damage within the Osler Library. There was, however, considerable water damage (see figure 2). The initial fire was on the terrace above the circulating collection, so this was the location of the greatest impact; a secondary fire that was detected on 14 July was a less immediate threat, but did bring more water into the building. While there was also some water infiltration in the Robertson area (housing post-1840 rare materials), this was minimal. All investigations concluded that there was no water infiltration in the Osler Room, which houses the pre-1840 items and Osler’s own writings. In the areas that were affected by water, library materials were removed immediately; those that were wet, were frozen so as to preserve their condition until they could be freeze dried. Meanwhile, the response team from Première Action installed dehumidifiers to prevent the growth of mould.
Planning and assessment
In the weeks that followed the fire, as attention moved from emergency response to planning and assessment, the involvement of McGill Library staff increased considerably. In order for the building—including the Osler Room—to be thoroughly inspected to determine the extent of the damage, all of the contents had to be removed. After it had been determined that the entire Osler Library needed to be emptied, the next challenge was to find a space that was large enough to store the collections in a climate-controlled environment. The solution we found was one that would allow us to continue to serve those who consult the collections. Two kilometres of shelving were freed up within the locked space that houses Rare Books and Special Collections, on the fourth floor of the McLennan Library. The artwork and the most valuable artefacts, meanwhile, went to a storage area belonging to the Visual Arts Collection.
Though the items in the Osler Room required the greatest level of care and attention, moving them was a relatively straightforward process. Thanks in large part to a dedicated heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) unit that preserved air quality even when the larger systems of the McIntyre itself were contaminated, the items in the Osler Room were unaffected by the fire. Thus, all of those items were packed and moved directly to the McLennan Library.
By the middle of the autumn semester, all of the Osler Library’s rare materials had been rehoused in the McLennan Library building and were available to researchers; by the end of the semester, the Osler’s circulating monographs were accessible in the basement of the Redpath Library Building. Those items that needed to be freeze dried were later assessed for their degree of damage; portions of the collection were deodorised and/or cleaned as needed.
The fire had a tremendous impact on the entire Osler community, near and far. The staff of the Osler moved, along with the complete contents of the library. Initiatives that were gaining momentum last year, particularly in the realm of public outreach, were put on hold.
The impact on the daily work of library staff was relatively minor, however, when weighed against the many patrons who continued to rely on the Osler for teaching, research, and other activities. The lack of access to materials was rendered more serious because there was no opportunity to plan, as there had been during previous closures that took place during renovations. This time, faculty members had to weigh whether they could teach classes; graduate students were concerned about whether our closure would affect their ability to make progress required by funding agreements; publications were delayed; exhibits were cancelled or postponed.
In other words, even as we celebrated our good fortune in having our collections spared, it was important to recognise that the unexpected inaccessibility of materials even for a few months had a very real impact: on scholarly output, on funding decisions, on the availability of required classes. The McGill Library made a monumental effort to soften the effects of the fire on the Osler community; materials were made available as quickly as it was feasible to do so, and colleagues in Interlibrary Loan helped our users obtain books from elsewhere, even when the catalogue initially threw up the alert that the books were ‘on the shelf’. Our colleagues in Rare Books and Special Collections and the McGill University Archives offered a gracious welcome to Osler staff, who are temporarily quartered in the already bustling space in the McLennan Library.
Invoking the phoenix
The Osler Library may have been temporarily displaced by the roof fire, but thanks to administrative support and our generous hosts—colleagues in Rare Books and Special Collections and the McGill University Archives—the Osler maintained a dizzying schedule of activities while operating out of the McLennan Library Building in spring 2019.
In the early weeks of 2019, the Osler Library hosted its first postfire exhibit opening. Curiosities of Conception was co-curated by Shana Cooperstein and Frances Cullen, both of whom are PhD students in Art History and Max Stern Fellows of McGill’s Visual Arts Collection. From January through May, visitors could visit the McLennan Library foyer to learn more about medical discourses and their relationship to images of what were regarded early on as monstrous births. The co-curators drew from Osler and other McGill Library materials to demonstrate that medical discourses ‘actively participated in the cultural construction of female sexuality as aberrant and of the mother figure as monstrous’. Two weeks later, in early February, the Osler celebrated the opening of a second exhibit that had been delayed by the fire: 2018 Larose-Osler Artist-in-Residence Caroline Boileau’s Corps qui hantent d’autres corps.
These were just a start to the Osler Library’s activities in 2019. On the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, the library marked the opening of Sir William Osler’s Leonardo da Vinci Collection: Flight, Anatomy, and Art, curated by Dr Rolando Del Maestro, William Feindel Professor Emeritus in Neuro-Oncology, Director of the Neurosurgical Simulation and Artificial Intelligence Learning Centre, as well as Honorary Osler Librarian and chairman of the Osler Library’s Standing Committee. In the year that also marks the centenary since Sir William Osler’s death, Dr Del Maestro examined common aspects in the lives of da Vinci and Osler. Complementing Dr Del Maestro’s production was an exhibit curated by former History of Medicine Librarian Pamela Miller, William Osler, the man you rarely see. A third May event was the Osler Library’s expert panel, “Predictor Unveiled: The first reliable home pregnancy test and its little-known connection to Montreal”. To cap off a lively spring, the Library was part of the local team hosting the 49th annual meeting of the American Osler Society, which met in Montreal from 12 to 15 May. The meeting had the largest attendance in Society history, as perhaps befits the 100th anniversary of Osler’s death. It offered 52 papers by both seasoned Oslerians and students, 32 of which were directly related to Osler.
On 3 May 2019, the McGill Library issued its fourth update on progress since the fire. Notably, it was confirmed that the Osler Library would be restored to prefire conditions. The update contained brief background information about the fire of 13 July 2018 and reference to the impressive recovery effort that allowed nearly all Osler Library materials to be available for consultation at a temporary location within the McLennan Library, within only a few months of the fire.
Other key points that were confirmed jointly by the Dean of Libraries and the Dean of Medicine included:
The Osler Room and its contents will be restored as they were.
All of the items that were part of Sir William Osler’s bequest will be housed, as before, at the Osler Library within the McIntyre Medical Building.
Considerable progress has already been made in the Wellcome Camera. The wall shelving and panelling have been reinstalled. Colleagues in Facilities have orchestrated meetings to discuss lighting as well as security cameras that meet much higher standards than did those due to be replaced.
Meanwhile, the Osler Room itself has been thoroughly cleaned and has had new lights installed. The carpet has been shampooed and the room will rest, ready for the day that the books begin to return (see figure 3). Due to the need to serve classes during the academic year, we anticipate that we will begin to move back to the McIntyre Medical Building when classes end in May 2020, so as to reopen at the start of the 2020–2021 academic year.
The Osler is not alone in facing uncertainty and disruption due to fire. We aim to see what good can come out of an unfortunate situation. How can we use our dislocation to bring about changes that we might otherwise only have hoped for? In reflecting on what works well at the Osler as we know it, we can look to the Osler Room itself. Without doubt, it is an inspirational space, designed with Osler’s vision in mind. As Osler’s alter ego, Egerton Yorrick Davis, had written in ‘Burrowings of a Book-worm’:
I like to think of my few books in an alcove of a fire-proof library of some institution that I love; at the end of an alcove an open fireplace and a few easy chairs, and on the mantelpiece an urn with my ashes and my bust or portrait through which my astral self … could peek at the books I have loved and enjoy the delight with which kindred souls still in the flesh would handle them.1
The Osler Room is a place that welcomes and delights Osler’s ‘kindred souls’. It is a place of inspiration, of humility, of education. Each visitor might experience it differently, and that is in keeping with Percy Nobbs’ beautiful design. Intellectually, one knows that one is in the presence of a magnificent representation of medical historical knowledge. The Osler Room is also a place that encourages inspection and reflection. Just as each look at the shelves reveals some oeuvre perhaps not noted before, careful attention to the physical aspects of the room reflect the care with which Nobbs designed a space that Francis appropriately described as ‘Osler’s shrine’.2
The Osler Room is not an end. For many, it might well be a destination, but for Osler’s inspiration to be complete, it must also be a starting point. At the Library, it is where we typically start with visiting classes. While a group of students may ostensibly be there to learn about a particular aspect of medical history, or to become acquainted with primary source research, the context of Osler’s vision is an important part of what we convey. The feedback we receive confirms that weaving Osler’s narrative into our teaching while making reference to Nobbs’s intricate design of the Osler Room, has a positive and lasting impression on those who visit.
While the Osler Room itself has a palpable impact on those who enter (eg, a collective gasp of wonder as a group walks in for the first time), there are other areas in the library where we are not as effective as we would like to be. The Osler Room is not currently set up as a reading room. The challenges of teaching within our current configuration raises the question of whether we might be able to design a dedicated classroom. Notably, Osler wrote in his memoranda relating to the establishment of the Bibliotheca Osleriana, “… I particularly wish my colleagues of Laval and my French Canadian brothers to take advantage of the many important works of the old masters of their native land, in the collection of which I have had them specially in mind”.3 Last year, we made progress by welcoming a few classes from the Commission scolaire de Montréal, but part of our plan for the centenary is to think about how we could reach out more effectively to serve our university colleagues in Montreal and beyond. Similarly, we have wondered how we might rethink the space we have available for exhibits.
As we reflect back and look forward, we wish to acknowledge the incredible response by the SIM and the many individuals and teams who were vital to the security of the Osler during the initial McIntyre fire of 13 July, the secondary fire on 14 July, and for the months that followed. To all, we are deeply grateful.
[This article has been reprinted, with revisions, from the Osler Library Newsletter 129 (Autumn 2018) and 130 (Summer 2019). We are very grateful to the Osler Library for permission to publish this account.]
The circumstances of the fire at the McIntyre Medical Building presented for the Osler Library a best-case scenario for a worst-case situation.
The response to the fire demonstrated the key importance of having skilled professionals ready and available to respond to environmental crises.
Even catastrophic events can become opportunities for growth.
Building emergencies highlight the complex work that goes on behind the scenes at libraries, and especially special collections libraries.
Current research questions
How can disaster response systems be improved?
What steps can be taken to protect heritage collectionsof medical historical materials to make sure they are available for future generations?
What are some characteristics of the Osler Room that make it a special place?
Davis EY. Burrowings of a Book-worm. San Francisco: Roxburghe Club, 2000.
Francis WW. At Osler’s Shrine. Bull Medical Library Assoc 1937;26.
Osler W. Memoranda relating to the Bibliotheca Osleriana. 24 March 1919. Box 100, Folder 326/17. P100, Sir William Osler Collection. Montreal: Osler Library Archives, McGill University.
Was there fire damage to the Osler Library when the roof burned on 13 July 2018?
Was the Osler Library able to reopen within its space in the McIntyre Medical Building?
Was the Osler Room itself (home to rare books and Sir William Osler’s own writings) damaged?
Will the Osler Library be restored?
No The damage was caused by water.
No. The Library was temporarily relocated to the Rare Books division, within the McLennan Library Building.
No. The Osler Room experienced no damage.
Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
Competing interests None declared.
Patient consent for publication Not required.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.
If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.