Mission Statement

The  International Cooperation Section (ICS) of the Medical Library Association provides opportunities for participation in international cooperation projects, promotes awareness of international issues, provides a mechanism for addressing and responding to the needs of international members, and fosters communication in the international library area.

A Brief History of the International Cooperation Section


The International Cooperation Section (ICS) of the Medical Library Association (MLA) was not established until 1989, a mere ten years ago. However, its antecedents go back to the earliest years of the association and are an integral part of the history of the section.

From the outset, MLA has had an international role. Its very origin was an international venture, when American and Canadian medical librarians got together and formed the Medical Library Association in 1898. Note that “American” does not appear in MLA’s name, as is the case with so many national organizations. And from the beginning, membership in the association has been open to all comers from any country. But, as we know, MLA quickly became the de facto Medical Library Association of North America, not a global international organization. The membership was made up almost entirely of medical librarians and libraries from Canada and the United States.

Later, the preponderance, if not dominance, of United States members led to MLA’s focusing its attention on matters purely American (i.e., United States) rather than continental (i.e., North America). None of this is to suggest that MLA was being exclusionist, isolationist or parochial; it was simply being pragmatic. The USA was its membership base and its mainstay. When the association was formally incorporated in 1934, it was only natural that it should be registered in the United States (in Baltimore, as a Maryland Corporation). However, the articles of incorporation provide for “operations – – – – -in foreign countries, so far as the laws thereof permit.”

Eventually, Canadian medical librarians, who for many years had had only MLA as their professional home, formed their own association—the Canadian Health Library Association (CHLA)—which was established in 1976. Until recently, there was an official representative from MLA to CHLA (see Appendix). Despite the establishment of CHLA, many Canadian librarians retained their membership in MLA, and one of them, Frances Groen, served as MLA’s president in 1989/90. Also, MLA still has a number of individual and institutional members from countries other than Canada and the United States. However, the remainder of this history is the story of a basically American (i.e., United States) association and its relations with and response to health science librarianship elsewhere in the world.

Early History of MLA International Relations

During its first quarter century, MLA was still finding its way organizationally, and not until the 1920s could it really turn its attention beyond its own back yard. It was not until the 1930s that activity that could be labeled as international took place, even if that was basically an act of national self-interest. A Committee on Periodicals and Serials had been formed in the 1920s and took upon itself to protest against the high price of German medical journals. (Spearheading this effort was Eileen Roach Cunningham of Vanderbilt University, of whom we shall hear more below.) And there were occasional reports on international matters during the Second World War.

In 1933, MLA joined the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) for the first time. This membership was later dropped but was restored in 1979, when MLA began having a representative to that body (see Appendix).

International Cooperation Committee (ICC)

It was not until after Word War II that MLA moved into high gear on the international scene, when Eileen Cunningham again went into to action. During her Presidential Year (1947/48), she established what later became the International Cooperation Committee (ICC). The impetus for this was her attendance, with Janet Doe, at a UNESCO Conference on indexing and abstracting, in which MLA played a significant role.

The most intensely pursued effort of the new committee, however, was directed at providing training for librarians from overseas, and more on this below. A further effort of the committee was coordination of an effort to distribute surplus journals to libraries in need—to those in the less affluent countries of the world and to those in countries which had suffered the ravages of war.

Janet Doe was ICC’s first chair. Eileen Cunningham succeeded her and served for the next five years. Her successor was Robert Lentz, who served six terms (he died only recently). Several other members served more than one year as chair before the present MLA policy of a one-year rotating chairmanship was adopted. (See Appendix.)

The next major effort of the committee was its involvement in the arrangements for the first International Congress on Medical Librarianship. This was held in London in 1953, and its chair was William LeFanu, Librarian at the Royal College of Surgeons. Research for his obituary [1], revealed that Eileen Cunningham had a major role from this side of the Atlantic. As we now know, there have been six subsequent congresses, and an eighth is planned for London in 2000.

Two of them—the second, in 1963, and the seventh, in 1995—were held in the United States (both in the nation’s capital). MLA and ICC or ICS played a major role in those congresses because they were held in conjunction with MLA annual meetings. Other congresses were the third (Amsterdam, 1969), fourth (Belgrade, 1980), fifth (Tokyo, 1985), and sixth (New Delhi, 1990). For some of these congresses, MLA was represented on “bridging committees,” and involvement of MLA and ICC/ICS members, either in an official or unofficial capacity, has been an element of the planning and execution of all the congresses.

A possible outcome of the first congress was the inauguration of international news in MLA’s publications, beginning with Notes from London in 1953. This later became International News, which continues to this day (see Appendix).

In its later years, ICC was also responsible for a number of initiatives. Mindful of the number of overseas visitors at MLA annual meetings, ICC took steps to make these gatherings more “attendee-friendly.” Special ribbons were attached to the name badges of foreign delegates, and MLA members were encouraged to greet these persons when they spotted them.

A “buddy system” was established in 1987 whereby those so inclined could volunteer to introduce people or take them to lunch or dinner. A reception for new members and overseas visitors was established. This later divided into two, with one a special reception for international visitors. It has been generously supported by vendors—so much so that some MLA members come to this gathering as much for the refreshments as for the opportunity to say hello to overseas visitors.

In 1987, ICC conducted a survey of international activities in progress. It also produced a handbook for the guidance of those involved in international exchanges and the hosting of visiting librarians. The following year, ICC presented its first program session at an annual meeting of MLA (New Orleans, LA 1988). The theme: AIDS and the Human Immunodeficiency Virus; A Global Threat. In 1989 it sponsored a panel at the Boston, MA, meeting: International Cooperation; New Initiatives for MLA.

International Cooperation Section (ICS)

During 1987/88, the Board of Directors voted to upgrade the International Cooperation Committee to the status of a section. This allowed for more MLA members with international interests to participate. A transition period existed from 1988 through 1991, when the ICC was dissolved. A task force helped this through, and there was simultaneous operation of the new section with ICC during the transition period.

A further boost for MLA involvement in international affairs came shortly afterwards, with a special article by then president Frances Groen (MLA’s second Canadian president) [2]. Although MLA’s top ten priorities at the time did not include international relations, Groen felt that MLA should build on Eileen Cunningham’s brave words of 1948 [3] and concluded: “We have a unique opportunity to revitalize our role in the international arena and to move beyond national boundaries.”

In 1989, ICS issued its first newsletter, and it has been issued regularly since. It contained the first ten goals for the section. The newsletter lists the various committees of the section, which include Bilateral Agreements Review; Bylaws; Cunningham International Fellowship; Membership; Job Exchange; Serials Exchange; and Program. It also describes their roles and activities. Each year the newsletter has stated the section’s goals and objectives. It contains a calendar and news and reports from around the world. These last describe the overseas experiences of American librarians and the experiences of foreign librarians in the United States. The achievements of section members are noted. Features of the newsletter include Cybercorner, which gives hints and tips on the use of Cyberspace. The section also has its own listserv.

It was also around this time that the European Association for Health Information Libraries (EAHIL) was established, and at the time of its inception, MLA was invited to have a representative to that body. This representation has been maintained.

Since 1991, ICS has sponsored a contributed or invited papers session at the annual meeting of MLA. These are listed in the Appendix. The first business meeting was also held that year, and they have been held each year since then.

International Fellowship Program

As previously mentioned, one of the early concerns of ICC was the training of medical librarians from overseas. Eileen Cunningham was the motivating force and she obtained funding from the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, NY, to provide support for a foreign librarian to come to the United States each year to observe and study modern medical librarianship first hand. This program lasted about ten years before funding came to an end.

Efforts were made within MLA to establish an endowment to provide for continuance of the fellowship but little came of the effort. From beyond the grave, Eileen Cunningham rescued the program. When her will was made public in 1966 (she died in October 1965) it was revealed that she had bequeathed $33,000 to MLA as the nucleus of an endowment. The fellowship was therefore named in her honor. MLA made a rather half-hearted effort to enhance the endowment but this came to naught, and the board voted to draw on the capital until funds were exhausted.

In the mid 1980s a group of concerned members, realizing that the program would shortly expire if there was not an infusion of funds, brought about the creation of an ad hoc committee to raise an endowment. Spearheading this effort was Robert Cheshier, and between 1987 and 1995, when the committee was dissolved, $100,000 was raised. This assured continuation of the program.

The International Cooperation Committee and the International Cooperation Section have played a role in the selection and hosting of fellows for this program.

(My coverage for the early years of this history draws very heavily on the 1982 Janet Doe Lecture [4] by Ursula Poland, to whom this brief history is dedicated.)


1. Hodges, TM. William R. LeFanu. Bull Med Libr Assoc. 1996 Apr; 84(2): 287

2. Groen, FR. Building bridges; the role of MLA in international affairs. Bull Med Libr Assoc. 1989 Oct; 77(4): 391-2

3. Cunningham, ER. The association faces the next fifty years. Bull Med Libr Assoc. 1948 Oct; 36(4): 246

4. Poland, UH. Reflections on MLA International Activities. Bull Med Libr Assoc.1982 Oct; 70(4): 359-368

Originally posted on MLANet. History by T. Mark Hodges, Professor of Medical Administration Emeritus and Former Director, Eskind Biomedical Library, Vanderbilt University Nashville, TN
10 February 1999

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