A man works in a book binding shop.

A New History of NLM: World War II and Relocation

By Stephen J. Greenberg ~

This is the fifth post in a series of nine which serializes the new book US National Library of Medicine in the popular Images of America series of Arcadia Publishing. A hardback version of the book is available from booksellers, and an electronic version of the complete book and original versions of the 170+ images, which appear in it in black and white, are archived and freely available in NLM Digital Collections.  The Intramural Research Program of the US National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, supported the research, writing, and editing of this publication. We hope that you will add it to your summer reading list!

During the long months between the Nazi conquest of Poland and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, one thing became clear: eventually, the United States would be drawn into World War II. But awareness is not preparedness.

Black and white photograph of Harold W. Jones.
Harold W. Jones (1877–1958) led the Army Medical Library from 1936 to 1945.

By the autumn of 1939, Harold W. Jones had been librarian of the Army Medical Library for three years. A veteran surgeon, he had seen active service worldwide, but his experience did not extend to libraries. Initially, he felt ill at ease at his post, but he soon had a firm grasp of the Library’s problems.

The most pressing concern was space. The Library was full, and the building was increasingly seen as a relic. Jones hounded the Army Medical Department, but his superiors would not spend money to renovate a building that might soon be replaced. In 1939, few suspected that America’s entry into the war would create demand for off-site storage that would stave off the problem for a few years, while scuttling immediate plans for a new building.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Jones received ever greater latitude in running the Library. He reorganized staff, replacing the informal structure inherited from the days of Billings with three divisions: Index-Catalogue and Research; Acquisition, Finance, and Supply; and Custody and Loans; all were supported by a clerical department.

Some wartime difficulties were to be expected. Journals from Europe were hard to obtain; subscriptions dropped from 2,200 to 1,300. Jones resorted to alternative methods to keep Library indexes comprehensive: borrowing journals from other libraries and obtaining needed copies through military intelligence services. Although the normal posting at the Army Medical Library was four years, Jones stayed on until the end of the war, the longest tenure of a librarian since Billings.

Black and white photograph of the library staff.
Staff of the Army Medical Library gather in the mid- 1940s. Pictured are William J. Wilson, PhD (first row, second from left), chief
of the History of Medicine Division of the Library, and Dorothy Schullian (first row, third from left), who would become one of the most significant scholars and bibliographers in the history of the Library.

The Library braced itself for new demands upon its resources. These increased slowly at first but eventually snowballed. The Library instituted a translation service, and staff compiled specialized bibliographies for medical personnel in the field. Staff increased to meet the demand, from 46 in 1942 to 156 by the end of the war.

Some wartime measures bore unexpected fruit. The Library was an early user of microfilm, then an emerging technology. At first, microfilm cleared space, but it was soon seized upon as a way to send text to multiple locations while keeping original materials available at the Library. Later, microfilm was mobilized to create backups in case of an attack on Washington.

Army Medical Library Cleveland Branch
Library staff added bookplates like this to volumes moved to Cleveland during the war years. The bookplates did not change when the collection returned to the East Coast, so many volumes on the shelves of the current National Library of Medicine still bear Cleveland bookplates.

The safety of the Library’s most valuable holdings was a matter of increasing concern. A year before Pearl Harbor, Archibald MacLeish, librarian of Congress, wrote to Jones outlining “the question of the protection of the irreplaceable materials of scholarship, art, and public record in the hands of Federal Agencies in the District of Columbia against damage and destruction by bomb.” MacLeish listed 14 institutions at risk, including the Army Medical Library. Jones responded promptly, estimating that the Library would require 20,000 cubic feet of secure storage space. Thus began on August 25, 1942, one of the most remarkable episodes in the Library’s history: the first transfer of what would eventually be 952 boxes of rare materials (weighing 75 tons) from Washington to the Dudley P. Allen Memorial Library Building in Cleveland, Ohio. The space there was available at low cost, and the Midwest was considered “safe” from enemy attack. The material remained in Cleveland until the Library’s current home in Bethesda, Maryland, opened in 1962. In 1945, this material was designated as the History of Medicine Division, a name it has retained to this day.

Jones detailed Thomas Keys, who had worked at the Newberry Library in Chicago and the Mayo Clinic Library in Rochester, Minnesota, to run the Cleveland operation. Keys gathered a dedicated staff of clerks and library professionals to maintain the collection.

The move began in August 1942 and revealed the poor condition of many of the Library’s older books. Consistent with best practices of the era, Jones and Keys planned for extensive book repair and rebinding in Cleveland. This would keep the books as a working collection, available to scholars, and not just relics too fragile to touch. Original bindings would be repaired and retained if practicable, but since usability trumped all, many deteriorating bindings were discarded. By September 1943, the Library had a bindery in Cleveland, soon considered to be one of the best in the country.

In Washington, Jones dealt with the pressures of running the wartime Library. Demand was high, and staff struggled to keep pace. But Jones kept a long view. In 1943, he obtained private funding from the Rockefeller Foundation for a survey of the Library. A team of librarians, under the auspices of the American Library Association and representing such institutions as Harvard, Columbia, Tulane, the New York Academy of Medicine, and the New York Public Library, inspected the Library and issued their report in 1944.

The surveyors found much to criticize but few surprises. The building was too small and in need of extensive refurbishment. There were inconsistencies in the Library’s signature products, such as the Index-Catalogue and the Index Medicus. Large infusions of money and staff were needed, both unattainable in 1944. Jones knew that, and so did the surveyors. Significantly, the survey report refers to the Army Medical Library as “The National Medical Library,” recognizing its role, if not its name. It was a name that Billings had first suggested in the 1870s.

By 1945, Jones was 68 years old and in poor health. He could not oversee a revamping of the Library. He was finally allowed to retire; his successor was Leon Lloyd Gardner, another long- serving Army doctor with no background in libraries. Gardner proved a poor fit, and he soon left, to be replaced in 1946 by Joseph H. McNinch, who also lacked a library background but who knew where to begin. McNinch’s copy of the survey report, still in the Library’s collection, bears the signed inscription, “In 1946–1949, this was my Bible.”

Stephen J. Greenberg, PhD, Stephen J. Greenberg, PhD, is Head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts for the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.


  1. I had a personal tour of this facility many years ago and found it both exciting and very informative.The displays and dioramas are excellent.It truly meets all the standards of other museums in Washington,D.C.

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