By Jeffrey S. Reznick
Welcome to Circulating Now, the new blog of the History of Medicine Division of the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), the world’s largest medical library and home to one of the world’s largest and most treasured history of medicine collections. Encompassing millions of items that span ten centuries, these collections include items in just about every form you can imagine—from books, journals, and photographs, to lantern slides, motion picture films, film strips, video tapes, audio recordings, pamphlets, ephemera, portraits, woodcuts, engravings, etchings, and lithographs. Our historical collections also include items from the present day: born-digital materials and rich data sets—like the millions of records in our IndexCat database—that are ripe for exploration through traditional research methods and new ones that are emerging in the current climate of “big data” and the digital humanities.
Why Circulating Now?… For over 175 years our historical collections in their various physical formats have circulated to generations within the reading rooms of our various locations in and around Washington, DC. Now, these collections—as part of the trillions of bytes of data produced and delivered by the world’s largest biomedical library—circulate daily to millions of people around the world. Circulating Now sustains the tradition and commitment of the NLM, and libraries everywhere, to provide knowledge and expertise freely and to inspire people and enrich lives. Circulating Now also conveys the vitality of medical history in our 21st-century world: its relevance and importance for research, teaching, and learning about the human condition. And Circulating Now evokes the living quality of the NLM’s historical collections and the stories they offer about the experience of health and disease here in the United States and around the world.
So, today, with the launch of Circulating Now, the NLM’s History of Medicine Division begins “circulating” its collections to the world in a new and dynamic way. Through contributions from our researchers, librarians, curators, interns, and other staff—and, I hope, you— this interactive blog will inspire those who have used our collections to share with new audiences what they learned from these rich resources. And I hope those new audiences will be inspired to discover our collections for the first time, to help open new windows onto the past, present, and future of disease and health.
As a researcher myself in our historical collections, I’ve been fortunate to open such a new window, by studying one of my own favorite items from the World War I era: The Mess Kit, the official “house organ” (or in-house magazine) of Camp Merritt Base Hospital, New Jersey. At least fifty military hospitals across twenty-one states and the District of Columbia published and circulated magazines like this during the “war to end all wars,” all endorsed by the Surgeon General’s Office and brought to life by wounded soldiers and military staff who contributed literary and artistic material. I’ll offer a future blog post about The Mess Kit, but for now, let me borrow the words of its editor, Corporal Sydney Flower, as a way to introduce this new blog: “…Its field is very wide; its contents are varied; its uses many. In this number, and in the numbers that follow …You have only to draw up your chair. You are welcome…”
Kicking off Circulating Now will be a series of posts that draws on the NLM’s historical collections and associated others to reenact in a unique way a tumultuous event in medical and American history which occurred 132 years ago this summer: the assassination of, and attempts to save, our nation’s twentieth President, James A. Garfield.
Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, is Chief of NLM’s History of Medicine Division and author of two books and numerous articles on the cultural history of war and medicine, including “Remains of War: Walt Whitman, Civil War Soldiers, and the Legacy of Medical Collections” (co-authored with Lenore Barbian, PhD, and Paul Sledzik), which received the 2013 best article award from the Archivists and Librarians in the History of the Health Sciences (ALHHS).