History of the National Library of Medicine

A Photographic Recollection

cover of the new book about the National Library of Medicine

History as told from the perspective of an institution’s leaders provides an important but incomplete picture of that institution’s contributions to society. But a history drawn from stories of the people who are integral to the day-to-day running of that institution can offer a fresh perspective and a more holistic understanding of the past. There have been many books and articles documenting the history of the National Library of Medicine (NLM). The latest one—Images of America: US National Library of Medicine (Arcadia Publishing)—actually draws on the stories of the people who have worked there and helped to shape its 180 years of service to the nation and the world.

The NLM traces its origins to the early 19th century, when it was a few dozen books in what was then the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office of the U.S. Army. Over the past 180 years, the library has evolved into the world’s largest medical library and is located at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

The book’s co-editors, Jeffrey S. Reznick and Kenneth M. Koyle, chief and deputy chief of NLM’s History of Medicine Division, and their colleagues in the division researched and wrote the chapters, which convey the library’s history. They also turned to the experience and expertise of curator Ginny Roth, who guided the selection of the archival photographs that appear in the book.

construction of the NLM in 1961 (see caption)


Workers pour concrete into the rib reinforcements of the roof of the new library building (1961).

The book documents NLM’s significant contributions to American culture and history and demonstrates the “NLM’s story as part of the fabric of U.S. history,” said Reznick. The entire book and all of the images in it are freely available through the NLM digital-collections repository. The NLM’s “Circulating Now” blog also serialized the book. Reznick and Koyle hope this open access, as well as the narrative of the book itself, will make the history of the NLM more accessible to the general public.

The 18-month-long process of collecting material and organizing stories resulted in a chronological telling of the library’s history spanning the early 19th century to the late 20th century. The photographs represent only a small portion of the nearly 150,000 prints and photographs held by the library (about half of which are digitized and freely available via the NLM Digital Collections. Other images were obtained from the National Archives, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the National Museum of Health and Medicine, and the Tulane University Rudolph Matas Library of the Health Sciences.

“Researching, selecting, and synthesizing material for this new, publicly available history of the National Library of Medicine was like discovering and documenting a family tree,” said Reznick. “But in this case, it was the very large NLM family tree consisting of generations of public servants who helped to conceive, build, and lead what has become the world’s largest biomedical library.”

workers in the NLM (see caption)


NLM staff complete their work using the current technology of the period including index cards, mimeograph machines, and manual typewriters (circa 1948).

The new book differs from earlier, traditional histories that featured either only the “higher-ups” or programs without the names and faces of the people who worked in them, according to Reznick and Koyle. Instead, Reznick, Koyle, and their colleagues were interested in providing a visual history that focused on the staff and their direct contributions to and involvement in the life of the library.

“Previous histories of the NLM are certainly valuable,” said Reznick. “But [they] deserve to be complemented with a broad history that spotlights the roles and responsibilities of staff and that can be understood and appreciated by readers of all ages and backgrounds.”

The new book also includes stories about women and other minority groups who were fundamental to the advancement of the library. The editors hope that the publication will encourage more people to learn about NLM and pursue further research in a space that is rich with historical records of human health and scientific progress.

To learn more, read the “Circulating Now” blog posts about NLM’s history. The blog also has links to free digital copies of Images of America: US National Library of Medicine and its 170 photographs. To view the July 13, 2017, videocast of the event announcing the new book, go to https://videocast.nih.gov/launch.asp?23391. In addition, copies of the book can be purchased from the FAES bookstore in Building 10, Amazon.com, and other bookstores

The library celebrated 150 years of public service in 1986. Staff gathered on its front steps for a sesquicentennial photograph.  (PHOTO CREDIT: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF MEDICINE)