A visit to the National Library of Medicine

Back in September, I had the opportunity to visit the National Library of Medicine and take their public tour of the facility. I’ll start by saying it’s a really interesting tour, so if you’re ever in the Washington D.C. area, you should definitely check it out!

The NLM is located in Bethesda, Maryland (about 30 minutes outside of D.C.), on the campus of the National Institutes of Health. It was founded in 1836 and is currently the world’s largest biomedical library. The NLM also coordinates the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, of which your Health Sciences Library is a member.

The NLM building itself is very nice, with a couple of reading rooms on the ground floor and a lobby area that houses temporary exhibitions. During the public tour, we learned a bit about the history of the NLM and the building, and got to see a few different rooms and departments.

Coincidentally, myself and the other two guests on the tour I took were all librarians, so we saw a couple of areas that I believe the tour usually doesn’t go to. We were able to go downstairs into the stacks area, where there are bound physical copies of every biomedical journal you can imagine, dating back many decades. If the internet ever ceases to exist, the NLM will still have all the journal articles you might need! Interestingly, the design of the building initially included several architectural measures to keep these journals safe in the event of a catastrophic event in the area, but due to a variety of complications and bureaucratic red tape, the items are not actually protected by the design as it was intended.

We also saw several rooms full of massive servers that house MeSH, and the rooms where staff members work on MeSH. If you don’t know, MeSH stands for Medical Subject Headings. It is a controlled vocabulary and is what makes PubMed (which is handled by the NLM) unique. NLM staff members with significant experience in a particular medical area–rather than robots–read every single article that will end up in PubMed. These humans then assign MeSH terms to each article. This process ensures that if I write an article about “lung cancer” and you write an article about “pulmonary neoplasms”, we’ll find each others’ articles even if we don’t specifically search for all of those terms– this makes PubMed an incredibly valuable resource for research, as I’m sure you know! (If you want to know more about using MeSH to your advantage to search PubMed really effectively, contact the Health Sciences Library and we’ll help you out.) Anyway, it was very neat to see the spaces where MeSH “lives” in the NLM building.

The real highlight of the tour for me was the History of Medicine collection, which is housed in one of the reading rooms on the ground floor. We got to take a peek in some staff members’ offices that are in this area, and saw this very large and very expensive book scanner that the staff members use to digitize historical texts. Out in the reading room area, we saw this very old card catalog that is not in use anymore but is still in its original location.

Finally, we went into a very fancy climate-controlled room where all of the really valuable historical texts are kept. This was incredible to see. This room has all kinds of security and preservation measures to keep these materials safe. To be honest, I can’t remember most of the specific texts that the staff member pulled out for us because they all so old and so amazing, but I do recall that he showed us an original letter that George Washington wrote to a medical officer during the Revolutionary War!

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I didn’t get great pictures of the books, but the short slideshow above gives you an idea of the kinds of materials in this room. Very, very cool!

The tour ended there, but you can see some of the amazing things the National Library of Medicine has from your own living room — their Digital Projects webpage is a good place to start your exploration of some materials you wouldn’t expect to be able to see on the web, such as an Egyptian surgical papyrus written in 1600 BC, or anatomical drawings from the 1400s! (Check out Historical Anatomies on the Web and Turning the Pages to see those documents.) The NLM also has a pretty thorough digitized collection of historical health-related images and videos, located on their Digital Collections webpage.

However, aside from all of the amazing old things, the NLM is also home to a massive number of current and modern resources that can improve your research and practice. I won’t go into detail here, but if you want to know more, please contact us at 303-724-2152 or AskUs@hsl.ucdenver.libanswers.com. Thanks for reading, and be sure to go visit the National Library of Medicine if you ever get the chance!