The Treasures of Medical History at the NLM: The U.S. National Library of Medicine Celebrates 175 Years

Jeffrey R. Reznick, September 2011

A curator displays one of the many illuminated rare books in the history of medicine collections of the National Library of Medicine. Photo by Elisabeth Grant.2011 marks the 175th anniversary of the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) which traces its origins to 1836 and the commitment of the second U.S. Army Surgeon General, Thomas Lawson (1789–1861), to purchase books and journals for active-duty medical officers. Today part of US National Institutes of Health, the NLM is the world's largest medical library with a collection of over 12 million books, journals, manuscripts, audiovisuals, and other forms of medical information, including one of the world's largest and most treasured history of medicine collections, which is housed within its History of Medicine Division.

The occasion of NLM's 175th anniversary affords an opportunity to invite exploration of its rich collections and resources by more members of the AHA and its affiliated societies, and to look to the future of the history of medicine as the field embraces new opportunities to digitize original material and engage in new technology such as mobile computing, open content, electronic books, and simple augmented reality.

Scholars, researchers, educators, and students of history will find the following NLM resources especially useful:

LocatorPlus® (http://locatorplus.gov/), which provides information on items in the NLM collection;

IndexCat (www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/indexcat/ichome.html), the online version of the 61-volume Index-Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon-General's Office, U.S. Army , which constitutes a comprehensive subject catalog of books, pamphlets, dissertations, reports, and journal articles published from the 17th-20th century and held by the NLM;

Images from the History of Medicine (www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/ihm/), which provides access to nearly 70,000 images in the collections of the NLM's History of Medicine Division;

Directory of History of Medicine Collections (wwwcf.nlm.nih.gov/hmddirectory/index.cfm), a continuously-updated database which reveals the depth and variety of history of medicine collections in libraries, archives, and museums around the world;

History of Medicine Finding Aids Consortium (www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/consortium/index.html), a search-and-discovery tool for archival resources in the health sciences, which currently includes over 1,600 finding aids from 12 institutions across the United States;

PubMed® (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed), which comprises more than 20 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books, including journal articles back to the 1940s; citations in PubMed may include links to full-text content located in the PubMed Central database of 2 million full-text articles and in publisher web sites;

Profiles in Science® (http://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/), which makes available the rich archival collections of leaders in biomedical research, clinical medicine, and public health; and

Turning the Pages (http://archive.nlm.nih.gov/proj/ttp/intro.htm), which refines original technology used by the British Library to enable users at kiosks, online—and now on an iPad—to touch, turn, and explore in visual and intellectual depth the pages of notable and rare works in the history of medicine.

NLM also offers Digital Collections, (http://collections.nlm.nih.gov/muradora), one of its digital repositories, which currently features a selection of monographs and films from the collections of NLM's History of Medicine Division. Digital Collections allows users to perform full-text and keyword searching within each collection or across the entire repository. Many of these resources appear in curated web sites offered by the library, including the site entitled “The Public Health Film Goes to War” (www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/digicolls/phfgtw/index.html). These films – alongside dozens more to be added soon to Digital Collections – stand among the 30,000+ titles in the NLM collection, which, in light of its depth and breadth, ranks as the foremost medical film archive in the world. Searchable via NLM's LocatorPlus, the NLM's film collection holds a treasure trove of knowledge about twentieth-century medicine and science, and it is one that is regularly consulted by documentary filmmakers – producing for PBS, BBC, Discovery Channel, and others – and by scholars, educators, writers, students, and others who are seeking to expand knowledge of modern public health and medicine.

Additionally, the NLM is home to an award-winning Exhibition Program (www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/about/exhibition/index.html),whose many original exhibitions onsite at the library have been seen by hundreds of thousands of individuals, while hundreds of thousands more have experienced them through companion web sites enriched with educational resources designed for different interests, learning levels, and academic goals. One of the most successful of NLM's travelling exhibitions has been Harry Potter's World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine, which explores the influence of Renaissance thinkers and philosophers on the fictional world of Harry Potter. An exceptionally popular show, five copies are travelling to libraries across the United States through 2013. To see the full portfolio of NLM's travelling exhibitions, visit www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/about/exhibition/travelingexhibitions.html,and visit the program's Facebook page to receive updates on new projects: www.facebook.com/NLMExhibitions.

NLM Welcomes You

As a public institution with 175 years of experience in collecting materials and providing information and research services in all areas of biomedicine and health care, the NLM is committed to introducing more audiences to its unique holdings. The NLM is also committed to developing new and innovative collaborations that advance research, teaching, and public understanding of medical and public health history. To these ends—and in unwavering support of the future of the history of medicine—the NLM invites you to be in touch, to explore its resources online at www.nlm.nih.gov and to visit its home on the NIH campus when you are in the Washington, D.C. area. Complete visitor and research information and the NLM/HMD staff directory are also available on the library's web site.

Jeffrey Reznick, a member of the AHA since 1992, is acting chief of the NLM History of Medicine Division. He is also an Honorary Research Fellow in the Center for First World War Studies of the University of Birmingham, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.