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RCN Library and Heritage Centre: Discover the History of Nursing

Posted By Emma L. Laws, 29 August 2019

RCN Library and Heritage Centre: Discover the History of Nursing

Royal College of Nursing

In 2016 the Royal College of Nursing will be celebrating its centenary, and the library will be home to a special exhibition- “The Voice of Nursing”- to mark the occasion. The College established a permanent professional library to support members between 1921 and 1922. Gertrude Cowlin was the first part-time professional Librarian from 1924, but by 1943 a full time Librarian was required and the service was expanded to provide books by post to members across the UK.

The library moved to its current location on Henrietta Place in 1944, and was opened by Princess Elizabeth in July 1945. Thanks to the dedication of Alice Thompson (appointed as librarian in 1949), the library collected an expansive range of English language nursing journals, pamphlets and nursing textbooks, dating back to the late nineteenth century. This widened to material on women and health.  Thompson also advocated nursing libraries in hospitals and was a supporter of high quality nursing library collections to support nursing courses.

The RCN library went through a rapid transformation through the 1970’s and 80’s. As the RCN’s trade union membership grew so did the library’s profile, and nurses who found the resources in their workplace and local educational institutions to be inadequate turned to what was quickly becoming known as the Library of Nursing. The library collated a monthly bibliography of new books for the profession, and at its peak had over 500 subscribing libraries in the UK and overseas.

Today the library has a reputation for having the largest nursing-specific collection in Europe. Whilst the library caters to study and research with medical textbooks, it also holds a Nursing History Collection and many rare books including Florence Nightingale’s own copy of Robinson Crusoe.

By Ellie Hunt, Collection Development Specialist at the RCN


The Voice of Nursing exhibition is open Monday- Friday 9am- 7pm and Saturdays (not during August) 9am- 5pm.  The LIHG are organising a visit to the RCN on Tuesday 26th April 2016, at 2pm.  This event is free, but booking is required.


Follow the RCN on Twitter! @RCNLibraries



Further reading:

McGann S, Crowther A & Dougall R (2009) A History of the Royal College of Nursing 1916-1990: A Voice for Nurses, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

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