Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD, is sworn in as the 19th director of the Library on September 12, 2016.

A New History of NLM: The Library in the 21st Century

By Jeffrey S. Reznick and Kenneth M. Koyle ~

This is the final 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!

Looking to the future has been a common theme in the history of the Library. When Joseph Lovell sent the latest medical journals and texts to the department’s medical officers in the field, he was well aware that such publications would be essential for current and future medical professionals. Interim Surgeon General Benjamin King requested funds to build what would become the core collection of the Library, and Thomas Lawson sought to grow the collection into a legitimate library. When John Shaw Billings was posted to the Office of the US Army Surgeon General in 1865 and put in charge of its small collection of books, he soon envisioned creating the most comprehensive medical collection possible. As the collection grew, Billings realized that it needed to be “catalogued and open . . . as complete as it can be made” and searchable by subject, which had never before been possible. Over the course of the following century, generations of dedicated public servants—men and women from a variety of backgrounds—brought the vision of John Shaw Billings to reality: the US National Library of Medicine, the largest medical library in the world. Modern leaders of the Library—from Harold W. Jones to Joseph H. McNinch to Frank B. Rogers to Martin M. Cummings—similarly looked forward as they engaged in the era of electronics and computers and what is known today to be the digital era, all to enable individuals across the nation and around the world to discover and easily use the Library’s collection for research, education, and clinical care.

Appointed to the directorship of the Library in 1984, Donald A.B. Lindberg became the Library’s longest-serving leader to date, with a tenure of more than 30 years spanning the dawn of the 21st century. With his progressive, future-oriented leadership, grounded by his understanding and respect of history, and building on the important accomplishments of his predecessor Martin M. Cummings, Lindberg led the Library into the digital age. During his tenure, technological innovations proliferated. To name only a few beyond those detailed in the previous chapter, 1990 saw the Library embark on a collaborative effort to transfer the printed data of the massive and unique Index-Catalogue into an online, searchable database called IndexCat, which, 23 years later, the Library released as Extensible Markup Language (XML) data for new, big-data oriented users and new uses in research, education, and clinical care; in 1994–1995, the Library released the Visible Human Male and the Visible Human Female—modern digital anatomical atlases—which stand in a long and rich tradition of printed, layered human body anatomies; in 1997, the Library launched PubMed, which simplified searching for medical information and connected users of MEDLINE to the web sites of publishers of medical journals so they could receive the full text of journal articles identified in a search; in 2000, the Library launched, which has become the world’s largest clinical trials database, and PubMed Central, an archive for full-text biomedical and life sciences journal articles; consumer-friendly MedlinePlus appeared in 1998, MedlinePlus en español in 2002; MedlinePlus the magazine, in 2006; and MedlinePlus Salud in 2009. These companion resources for patients and their families offer free and up-to-date information about diseases, conditions, and wellness issues in understandable language.

Hand in hand with these and many other innovations were achievements of Library staff to bring the physical collections of the institution—and the stories of the human condition they hold—increasingly into the digital arena, to circulate freely beyond traditional reading rooms so they could be explored by people across the nation and around the world. Today, the Library preserves and makes publicly available a constantly growing collection of nearly 30 million items. The institution is a global leader in information technology and distribution, and it remains the steward of one of the largest and most treasured history of medicine collections in the world. Every day, its electronic services deliver trillions of bytes of vitally important data to millions of people. Scientists, scholars, educators, health professionals, and the general public in the United States and around the world search the Library’s online resources more than a billion times each year.

In the years to come, the Library’s dedicated staff will continue to collect, preserve, and interpret for diverse audiences the broad and expanding scope of medical information, from material spanning the centuries—books and journals, still and moving images, manuscripts and ephemera—to “born digital” material like web sites and social media, as well as data generated by 21st century researchers.

We that the visual history shared through this series of posts inspires you to learn more about the Library, to explore its collections and resources, and to appreciate the important role it plays as it enters its third century of preserving and providing access to current medical knowledge and to the medical heritage of the nation and the world.

Portrait of Jeffrey S. Reznick in the HMD Reading RoomJeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, is Chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.
Portrait of Kenneth M. KoyleKenneth M. Koyle is Deputy Chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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