National Library of Medicine Celebrates 175 Years

October 20, 2011 at 3:40 pm

What we now know as the National Library of Medicine (NLM) began with a small collection of medical books in 1836 and was established initially as the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office.  Surgeon General Lieutenant John Shaw Billings in the early 1860’s increased the size of the collections by asking physicians and libraries across the United States for donations in addition to asking State Department officers to bring international medical texts back from their overseas assignments. Billings also established the Index Catalog in 1870 and thus initiated an important mission of NLM, that of acquiring, organizing, and describing the world’s medical literature, a mission that is carried on today as PubMed and a variety of other specialized databases and services.

For a time in the 1860’s, the national medical library was located in Ford’s Theater where Abraham Lincoln was shot.  The library was renamed the Army Medical Library in 1922 and utilization had  increased to such an extent that the headquarters was moved to a building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

An Act of Congress in 1956 officially created the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and the current NLM building on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, Maryland was built to house the collections, staff and services.  NLM is considered one of the institutes of NIH. The building was designed to prevent Cold War threats with one foot thick limestone walls, over 50 miles of underground bookshelves and a collapsible roof! The Lister Hill Center for Biomedical Communications and the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) were established to continue to realize NLM’s core mission. The NCBI is the home of GenBank, the repository of gene sequences so important to genomic research and the future of individualized medicine. 

NLM is now the largest medical library and biomedical data repository in the world with over 12 million books, journals, manuscripts, and audiovisuals; and,  specialized repositories for gene sequences, clinical trials descriptions, toxicology information, and other forms of medical information. NLM serves a diverse audience of clinicians, researchers, and health consumers worldwide.  Key services and databases include the following:

  • Biomedical literature catalogued and organized to provide online access to medical publications from over 80 countries — including pre-publication abstracts
  • GenBank of genetic sequence information from NCBI
  • Partners with over 5,600 members of the National Networks of Libraries of Medicine to provide online tutorials and free classes on use of the NLM resources
  • Genetic Home Reference — genetic conditions, chromosomes, genes, glossary of terms and additional resources
  • Support for environmental and toxicology databases for clinicians and consumers — Toxnet which has information on toxicology, hazardous chemical and environmental exposures and a household chemical database
  • — over 124,000 drug and device clinical trials with information about purpose of the study, who is eligible, locations and contact numbers for additional information
  • MedlinePlus — consumer health information including dictionary, medical encyclopedia, diseases and conditions, online tutorials

Learn more about the resources of the National Library of Medicine by exploring the links above, and celebrate the 175 years of concerted efforts to provide timely, reliable, relevant,  and up to date health information. Health related libraries worldwide are dependent on the databases and services of NLM. The Mayo Clinic Libraries is proud to be a partner with NLM in the National Network of Libraries of Medicine where Mayo’s library serves as a Resource Library for the national network.

Carol Ann Attwood
Patient and Health Education Library

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Library All Sites: 2011 Issue 40, October 2011

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