NLM Staff gathered on the steps of the Library for a photograph.

New History of the NLM: Celebrating 150 Years of Public Service and Looking to the Future

By Jeffrey S. Reznick ~

This is the eighth 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!

In late December 1985, a joint resolution passed by Congress declared 1986 the Sesquicentennial Year of the National Library of Medicine. It was a time to celebrate and reflect on a rich and diverse record of public service and to look ahead to the digital era. Only two years earlier, the Library had welcomed a new and visionary director, Donald A.B. Lindberg, MD, an eminent pathologist and pioneering scientist, who, since 1960, had been applying computer technology to health care at the University of Missouri. Under his new leadership, the Library’s sesquicentennial became an ideal moment to take stock of the past and look to the future. In the words of President Ronald Reagan:

One hundred fifty years ago, in 1836, what is now the largest and most distinguished medical library and medical communications center in the world was only a small collection of medical books in the office of the United States Army Surgeon General. That transition is an inspiring story—one that speaks of both the need of health professionals and researchers for rapid access to information and of the response to that need by a succession of dedicated and visionary leaders of the National Library of Medicine.

Only days after President Reagan’s proclamation, dignitaries and guests, Library leadership and staff, and members of the public gathered on Capitol Hill to inaugurate a series of events that would help to mark the Library’s sesquicentennial. Among the first was an open house at the Library itself, its leadership and staff welcoming friends from across the National Institutes of Health, neighbors from around Bethesda, and colleagues from across the country. Visitors participated in tours of the institution, heard from staff who developed and managed a variety of information systems, and learned about the history of the Library through a special sesquicentennial exhibition. The occasion underscored an important feature of the Library since its relocation to the campus of the National Institutes of Health in 1962: it was a place open to all, where patrons could visit, explore, and learn through individual research, conversation with Library staff, and exhibitions that featured the treasured collections of the institution.

Events of the Library’s sesquicentennial year also included the opening of its new visitor center and a symposium on the history of vaccines involving Albert Sabin, the award-winning scientist best known for developing the oral polio vaccine. Two additional symposia, on the subjects of medicine and the arts and on space medicine, conveyed the diversity of the Library’s collections, programs, and connections to other organizations, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Friends of the National Library of Medicine sponsored a gala dinner and evening at Ford’s Theatre, where the Library was located from 1866 to 1887. The Library also held a weeklong medical film festival featuring the award-winning productions of that year’s John Muir Medical Film Festival.

Complementing the future-oriented sesquicentennial year of the Library were several significant technological advancements. Staff enhanced MEDLARS by introducing Grateful Med, an innovative new software program for desktop computers that enabled individual health professionals and others without specialized search training to explore the millions of journal article references in MEDLINE. Additionally, staff initiated a research and development project to create a Unified Medical Language System, with the ambitious goal of helping computers to understand biomedical meaning, irrespective of the different terminologies and classifications used in medical information sources, including biomedical literature and patient records. Finally, there was the 1986 long-range plan of the Library, designed to guide the institution in using its human, physical, and financial resources to fulfill its mission in a time of great change in science and widespread access to medical and related information. The plan identified 16 goals across five priority areas—building and organizing the Library’s collection, locating and gaining access to medical and scientific literature, obtaining factual information from databases, research and training in medical informatics, and assisting the education of health professionals through information technology. In the following years, Library leadership and staff would update the plan in specific areas, with supplemental planning reports on outreach to health professionals (1989), electronic imaging (1990), information services for toxicology and environmental health (1992), the education and training of health science librarians (1995), and international programs (1998).

The closing years of the 1980s saw accomplishments that would fundamentally shape the future of the Library and its contributions to medicine in the decades that followed. Coming directly out of the 1968 long-range plan was the recognition by the Library’s board of regents that the Library must play a major role in the area of molecular biology information by creating a National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). As envisioned, this center would deal with the increasing volume and complexity of molecular and genetic data and provide researchers with improved access and computing tools to better understand genes and their role in health and disease. With the powerful support of Rep. Claude Pepper, Congress authorized the new center through legislation signed by President Reagan in November 1988. The center would soon become a key participant in organizing and providing access to the results of the Human Genome Project, the international, collaborative research program whose goal was to provide researchers with powerful tools to understand the genetic factors in human disease and pave the way for new strategies for disease diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. Leaders of the Human Genome Project declared their work complete in 2003, when they had successfully mapped all of the genes—together known as the genome—of the species Homo sapiens. For the first time in history, scientists could read nature’s complete genetic blueprint for a human being. Since this achievement, the center has become an internationally recognized source for genomic databases, software tools for analyzing molecular data, and research in computational biology, serving millions of Internet users every day.

Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, is Chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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