National Library of Medicine: A valuable outing, and not just for MDs


Paul Theerman, head of the image and archive section at the National Library of Medicine, shows visitors some of the collection in the Incunabula Room. The temperature-controlled space is devoted to old and rare medical manuscripts, including a gastrointestinal-disease guide from the 11th century. (Dan Gross/THE GAZETTE)
March 6, 2013

There is a secret treasure behind the tall metal fence surrounding the National Institutes of Health on Rockville Pike.

The windowless facade of the imposing stone building of the U.S. National Library of Medicine doesn’t give any clues about the bounty inside.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine is the world’s largest medical library, housing more than 17 million items, including books, journals, public-health posters and films.

The library is not just a receptacle of medical writing. It is a public library open for traditional research and interactive learning through special exhibitions of the library’s materials.

“I would like people to know about our exhibitions and our online resources,” said Jeffrey Reznick, chief of the History of Medicine Division at the library. “I would love for people — educators and families — to explore our Web site.”

Reznick said most people driving past the library have no idea that it is open to the public and that it offers information and exhibitions for families looking for an interesting outing or teachers planning field trips.

“We are really trying to serve the general public, as well as researchers,” said Jiwon Kim, who works with education and outreach at the library.

Not everyone can get there, so it offers most of its resources online. There are lesson plans for teachers so classes get the most from their visits, Kim said. Exhibitions can be viewed online at www.nlm.nih.gov.

A current exhibition, “Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness,” fills the library’s central lobby with photos, artifacts and recorded voices discussing health and healing as it relates to native cultures.

Other exhibitions at the library include one showing George Washington’s concern for the health of his troops — “Every Necessary Care and Attention: George Washington and Medicine” — and “Pick Your Poison: Intoxicating Pleasures and Medical Prescriptions,” a history of mind-altering drugs in the United States.

Beyond the large exhibit space, in the small reading room, exhibits of newly acquired materials dot the perimeter. One display case contains examples of material distributed by public health officials to explain sickle-cell disease. Another has papers from Bernadine Healy, the first female director of the National Institutes of Health, who served from 1991 to 1993.

Then there is the temperature-controlled cold and dim Incunabula Room, containing old and rare manuscripts.

“All the books in this room date before 1500 or are special for some other reason,” said Paul Theerman, head of the library’s images and archives section.

The oldest book in the collection, from 1094, is an Arabic manuscript — a medicine book on gastrointestinal disease, Theerman said.

A modern holding in the Incunabula Room is a work sheet showing the progression on the work Marshall Nirenberg, an NIH biochemist and geneticist, did to break the genetic code. He received the Nobel Prize for his work in 1968.

It is only fitting to mention, too, that the library has published a book about itself — “Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine.”

“Through this book, readers will learn about the remarkable depth and breadth of the collections of the world’s largest medical library, as well as the rich history of the library itself,” Reznick said in an e-mail. “It contains nearly 240 pages and 450 photos that illustrate only some of the 17 million items held at the NLM, dating from the eleventh century to the present.”

“Hidden Treasure” is available as a free download from NLM’s Digital Collections at http://collections.nlm.nih.gov/HiddenTreasure. It also is available from the publisher, Blast Books, at www.blastbooks.com and through major online booksellers.

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