In 1882, Washington physician, historian, and bibliophile, Joseph Meredith Toner (1825-1896) presented his research collection to the Library of Congress. Counting the many volumes added to the collection in later installments over the following 14 years, Dr. Toner donated nearly 50,000 books, pamphlets, scrapbooks, and issues of periodicals as well as maps, manuscripts, and innumerable files of newspaper clippings. The collection chiefly covers the subjects of medicine, natural history, and local and general American history and geography.
Joseph Meredith Toner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 30, 1825, and died at Cresson Springs, near Johnstown, July 29, 1896. After growing up in Pennsylvania and Maryland, he attended the Western University of Pennsylvania and Mt. St. Mary's College in Emmetsburg, Maryland, but decided to pursue a career in medicine. He first served as an apprentice in Johnstown, then as a student at the Medical College in Woodstock, Vermont, from which he received his Medical Doctor degree in 1850, and later Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, from which he received another M.D. degree in 1853. He moved to Washington, D.C., and set up his own medical practice in 1855. Soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, the city's main hospital The Washington Infirmary burned, and Toner was instrumental in founding its replacement, Providence Hospital, which served as a public hospital until its closure in 2019. Having been raised an Irish Catholic, he was instrumental in helping to found St. Ann's Infant Asylum and St. Joseph's Orphan Asylum. He also served on the governing boards of other local medical institutions, including St. Elizabeth's. He was active in numerous local and national medical associations, including as president of the Medical Society of the District of Columbia (1886-1887) and the American Medical Association (1874-1875).
Aside from medicine, Toner was interested in literary and historical subjects, including local Washington, DC, Maryland, and Pennsylvania history. He had a particular interest in George Washington, and he edited and published several of the first president's journals, diaries, and other writings. He was also a founder and first president of the Columbia Historical Society, now the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. In his later years, he returned to Westmoreland and Cambrian Counties in Pennsylvania.
The unique materials of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, now totaling over 1 million items, include books, broadsides, pamphlets, theater playbills, prints, posters, photographs, and medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. At the center is Thomas Jefferson's book collection, which was sold to Congress in 1815. The Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room is modeled after Philadelphia's Independence Hall. This room is home to the divisional catalogs, reference collection, and reference staff. Collections are stored in temperature and humidity controlled vaults.