A tour guide speaks to visitors in the History of Medicine Reading Room

Field Trip!

By Stephen J. Greenberg

Two women look at an oversized book open to an anotomical illustration of a disected arm.
Visitors from the Rare Book School examine Govard Bidloo’s Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams.

I don’t know about you, but when I was still in school, there were two words that instilled great fear in the heart of any student, and two other words that brought great joy.  The fear words were “pop quiz,” and the joy words were “field trip!”

Thanks to the hard-working staff of NLM’s Office of Community and Public Liaison, there is a regularly scheduled tour of the library and the Lister Hill Center every weekday at 1:30pm. These tours are available on a walk-in basis, but it is also possible to book a special tour in advance for a special group with a special focus.  And some of these groups are very special indeed.

More often than not, I’m asked to take part in guiding these tour groups around, so I get to meet all sorts of folks from all over the world.  Some are from relatively close by; classes from the University of Maryland’s iSchool at College Park, or Rare Book School at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.  They could be from across the country, like the Sacred Root Native American Information Fellowship Program, a project organized by the US Department of Health and Human Services, or the annual Institute on Federal Library Resources hosted every Summer by the Catholic University of America.  Sometimes other institutes here at NIH bring over a visitor or two (such requests are either handled directly, institute to institute, or through the good offices of the NIH Visitor’s Center). There might be visiting health care professionals attending a conference next door, or possibly VIPs: the heads of the largest medical library in Korea or Sri Lanka, or senior staff from the Iraqi Ministry of Health.  It’s just as likely to be a high school class on their senior trip to DC, with brightly-colored matching t-shirts and lots of enthusiasm.

A room with decorative wood floors, tables, book shelves, display cases and an information desk.Whoever the group is, they are always impressed when they get to the History of Medicine Reading Room.  It is, after all, a very impressive space.  But what they mostly come for are the books. It’s often AFTER they get here that they realize there is so much more.

Title section of the binding of the Origin of Species first edition.
First Edition of The Origin of Species
National Library of Medicine #60820070R

What to show is always a bit of a conundrum.  Do you show visitors from Japan only Japanese books, which they may (or may not!) have seen at home?  Or do you stick to the “Treasures?”  Obviously there’s some fine tuning each time. But usually, there are some standard items:  Vesalius, Harvey, Avicenna, the Nirenberg DNA chart, or a 1780 letter written and signed by George Washington. Where to begin? Anatomy books are always a good bet, so the younger visitors can let out with a collective “ooooh!” just before lunch.  But sometimes an unimpressive-looking volume can be just as important.  That battered and undistinguished 19th century book in the faded green cloth binding turns out to be a first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Some can stay for only a few minutes (it’s getting late, and they’re supposed to be at the Jefferson Memorial by 4); some get an entire class for an hour or more.  Either way, they get to spend some time with history.  After all, George Washington actually TOUCHED this piece of paper!

Group tours of the History of Medicine Division or of the entire library are easily arranged.  Go to http://www.nlm.nih.gov/about/vcenter.html for tours of the entire library, or contact the History of Medicine Reference Desk at NLM Customer Support or (301) 402-8878 for tours of the History of Medicine Division only.

Stephen J Greenberg in his officeStephen J. Greenberg, PhD, is Coordinator of Public Services for the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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