Behind the Scenes at the World's Medical Library: The National Library of Medicine

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


November 30, 2018

Washington, DC: Monuments, Memorials, and Medicine

When traveling to the Washington, DC, area for professional or personal reasons, most visitors focus on the city's famous monuments and memorials, but physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professionals have another attraction to see. The US National Library of Medicine (NLM), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is open for tours. Located only eight stops from the Metro Center on the Red Line, the NLM is easily accessible to visitors to the nation's capital.

Thousands of people tour the NLM every year. In fiscal year 2017, these guests represented 82 countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. The tours include medical art, rare medical books, and an overview of the Library's history.

Figure 1. The National Library of Medicine. Photo courtesy of NIH.

More Than Meets the Eye

A glassed-in room deep in the bowels of the NLM doesn't look like much at first glance. It's a massive space occupied by rows and rows of tall black servers. From the outside, the only hint that this unprepossessing space is, in fact, important, is the retinal scanner that permits access to this room. Tara Mowery, Chief of NLM Visitor Operations, brings every group of visitors to this spot early in the tour, because she knows that, if she doesn't, she'll be asked about it. Indeed, visitors who are "in the know" are awed or thrilled, as they pull out their phones to take photos. For this is the closest a visitor can get to "seeing" PubMed, and for some, PubMed represents the beating heart of the NLM.

Figure 2. Where the magic happens, PubMed. Photo by Madeleine Stokowski.

The 1997 announcement that the world's largest medical literature database would be available to everyone with a computer and internet connection, worldwide, free of charge, was a game changer for healthcare professionals. Those who remember hefting Index Medicus volumes around the library can almost pinpoint the day that searching the medical literature changed forever.

PubMed and its corresponding literature resources, MEDLINE, and PubMed Central are only a few of the databases under the umbrella of the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) of the NIH. Journals must be specially selected to be indexed in MEDLINE. PubMed and PubMed Central (which provides free full-text articles) are the interfaces through which users access the MEDLINE database.

NCBI handles a phenomenal volume of traffic. On an average day, 4.2 million Web users view 21 million pages, and at peak times, the site handles more than 7000 hits per second. Every day, about 2.5 million PubMed users conduct 3 million searches and view 9 million pages.[1]

Did you know? The NLM also maintains, the world's largest repository for information about human research studies. With a simple search, people can learn about trials that are recruiting patients and healthy volunteers to participate in clinical studies.


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