A photograph of a corner view of a large building occupying a city block.

Director Jones: Laying the Foundation for the National Library of Medicine

By Michael Kronenfeld and Jennie J. Kronenfeld ~

People familiar with the National Library Medicine (NLM) may not be aware of its long history and the key role Colonel Harold Jones, Director of the Army Medical Library from 1936 to 1945 played in leading the Army Medical Library back from a forty-five years decline into mediocrity and setting the stage for NLM’s emergence.

During the leadership of John Shaw Billings from 1865 to 1895, the Army Surgeon General’s Library became the Army Medical Library and grew from a small department support library into one of the premier medical libraries in the world and the nation’s defacto national medical library. After Billing’s departure the Army Medical Library went through a slow but steady decline.

An older white man in a military uniform seated at a desk.
Colonel Harold W. Jones, MD, ca. 1944
National Library of Medicine #101641746

In 1936, Colonel Harold W. Jones was appointed Director.  His first major project was the organization and management of the celebration of the Library’s hundredth anniversary, a project initiated by his predecessor, Major Edward Erskine Hume. Jones’ work on the Celebration helped him learn about the history of the Library and of its current needs.  He embarked on a series of actions to upgrade the condition and services of the Library.

In 1943 he called for a group of professional librarians to make a thorough review of the Library.  He convinced the Rockefeller Foundation to provide $20,000 to fund the study carried out under the sponsorship of the American Library Association. Six prominent librarians, headed by Keyes D. Metcalf from Harvard University, conducted the study. In addition to Metcalf the committee was made up of Janet Doe, New York Academy of Medicine, Thomas P Fleming, Columbia University, Mary Louise Marshall, Tulane University, L. Quincy Mumford, New York Public Library and Andrew D Osborn, Harvard University. The surveyors performed a through, unrestricted inspection of the Library and were given free access to its staff.  Their report, titled “The National Medical Library; Report of a Survey of the Army Medical Library”, set in motion the development of the Army Medical Library into the National Library of Medicine which, by the late 1950’s, was providing strong leadership for the nation’s medical libraries. A summary of the report’s findings is presented below.

A photograph of a corner view of a large building occupying a city block.
Southeast corner view of the “Old Red Brick”, ca. 1950s
National Library of Medicine #101445530


A photograph shows damaged wooden floor joists.
Deterioration of the floor in the the Army Medical Library ca. 1953
National Library of Medicine #101445683

The lack of adequate space in a building built in 1887 with no air conditioning and poor environmental conditions caused the physical deterioration of the collection. Windows left open in the Washington summers not only resulted in damaging humidity but also allowed dust to build up. The dry conditions in winter further damaged the books.  In addition, the Library’s inadequate budget during the depression did not support proper repair of parts of the collection.

Because of the severe lack of space, temporary wooden shelving was added wherever possible, making control of the collection difficult, a problem made worse due to the lack of a shelf list.

In addition to the book collection, the Library’s Statistical and Documents Section had a sizable collection of unbound and pamphlet items. These were stored in the basement of the Library in steel boxes which held about one hundred pamphlets each. They were totally full and trying to squeeze additional material into the boxes was causing damage.

Index Publications

Titlepage of a printed book.
The National Medical Library: Report of a Survey of the Army Medical Library, 1944
National Library of Medicine #57810440R

The 1943 report identified several significant problems with the preparation and publishing of the Index-Catalogue including:

    • The weakness in the Library’s collection development due to budgetary constraints meant that its collections, and thus the Index-Catalogue, did not provide comprehensive coverage of the medical literature
    • There was no consistent list or system of subject heading. The report recommended the subject headings used in the Quarterly Cumulated Index Medicus used as the basis for development of a subject list based on professional standards
    • Publication procedures needed to be improved including a more careful system of reviewing the prepublication proofs to catch and fix the frequent errors that had appeared in the past volumes
    • The high cost of preparing and publishing it were placing a drain on the Army Medical Library’s already inadequate budget.

The Quarterly Cumulative Index to the Current Medical Literature was the successor to Billings’ Index Medicus which indexed journal articles. In 1927, it was replaced by the Quarterly Cumulative Index Medicus which was still being published in the 1940’s.

As a way to support use of the Army Medical Library’s microfilm based document delivery service, established in the 1930’s as an alternative to extensive loaning out of print materials, the Library began publishing a Current List of Medical Literature. It quickly grew to indexing over a thousand titles arranged under about fifty subject headings using the index cards prepared to the Index-Catalog. Citations were in the subscribers’ hands about ten days after the journal had been received by the Library.

The 1943 Report stated that many physicians and medical librarians wanted these three publications better coordinated if not unified.

Organization and administration of the Library

Up to the 1943 study, the Librarian (as the Director was referred to) and his (as they were all men) principle assistants were medical men with military appointments. After Billing’s thirty-year tenure as the Librarian, the average tenure of the Librarians was three years. This lack of stability of library training and experience in its leadership left the Library weak in terms of technical organization and training. In his 1942/43 Annual Report, Colonel Jones states:

The Army Medical Library is now in its 107th year. It has occupied its present location for 56 years. In the past year its operation on a definite organizational plan with separate divisions, each headed by a highly trained professional librarian, has been accomplished.

Three white men stand under a painted portrait hung on a wall.
Unveiling of Col. Jones Portrait, 1944
National Library of Medicine #101420038

Up to 1942, individuals were responsible for specific library functions such as production of the Index Catalog, acquisition and reference even though those functions had long outgrown the ability to be performed or managed by a single staff member. In 1942, Jones set up four Library divisions:  1. Accessions and Supplies Division; 2. Administrative Division; 3. Circulation and Reference Division, and 4. Index-Catalogue Division. The 1943 Report strongly supported the administrative structure implemented by Jones but recommended several changes including shifting the Accessions and Supplies Division into an Acquisition Division and the establishment of two additional divisions—a Catalog Division and a Rare Book Division.

Colonel Jones and his successors heavily used the Report to guide them in their efforts to reorganize and revitalize the Library laying the groundwork for the Army Medical Library (renamed the Armed Forces Medical Library in 1952) to develop into a strong institution able to assume leadership in developing the country’s preeminent medical information infrastructure after the Library’s transition from the military to the Public Health Service as the National Library of Medicine in 1956.

Colonel Jones retired in 1945 at the conclusion of the war.  He had played a key role in the redevelopment of the Library from mediocrity into a true, visionary national library of medicine.  As NLM’s History of the National Library of Medicine states:

Under his direction the Library began to ascend out of the mediocrity into which it had been sliding for a quarter of a century. Next to Billings, Jones was the librarian who had the greatest impact on the old institution.

Michael Kronenfeld, MLS, MBA, AHIP, FMLA, is University Librarian Emeritus at A.T. Still University of the Health Sciences. Jennie J. Kronenfeld, PhD is Professor Emerita at Arizona State University. They recently completed a book titled A History of Medical Libraries and Medical Librarianship: From John Shaw Billings to the Digital Era which is in press.  In support of this project they received a group award of theNLM Michael E. DeBakey Fellowship in the History of Medicine in 2019.


  1. I believe the article should state the report was sponsored by the American Library Association, not the American Medical Association.

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