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

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


November 30, 2018

Library Collections

Many people visit the NLM to take advantage of the library's unparalleled collection of books and journals, although the number of daily patrons has dwindled as the library's holdings are increasingly digitized and available online.

The library's three underground floors comprise 65 miles of shelving, holding 30 million items spanning 10 centuries in more than 200 languages, and thousands of bound journals and archival boxes holding the historical manuscripts and papers donated to the library.

History of Medicine Division

The oldest, rarest, and most valuable books in the library's collection had one other temporary home. Library historian Kenneth Koyle related the remarkable story of the historical collection's fate during the Second World War, when many institutions in Washington sent valuable materials away from the capital for safekeeping.

The rare books had to be moved to protect them from a possible attack on the nation's capital by the Germans. They needed a location far enough from Washington for safety, and Cleveland's Dudley P. Allen Memorial Library offered to house the historical collection. The move, in 1942, was a big maneuver. The 35,000 rare volumes filled 925 boxes and weighed more than 75 tons. It was a secret operation—the public was not aware of the impending move, which took place under cloak of darkness. An entire train was chartered and filled with Pinkerton guards. Not a single book was lost.

The historical collection remained in Cleveland for 20 years, until the current library building was completed in 1962. The rare books were returned, and became the nascent collection of the NLM's Historical Division. The new library building included a separate area for the old and rare books, including an incunabula room.

Today, the History of Medicine Division is the caretaker of all pre-1914 books, pre-1870 journals, and pre-1970 audiovisual materials (which are being converted to digital formats). In total, the history collection comprises 600,000 printed works, including 580 incunabula, 57,000 16th-18th century books, and more than 400,000 titles published between 1801 and 1913. Modern manuscripts, personal papers of famous figures in medicine, and more than 150,000 historical prints and photographs are also stored within the division.

The history reading room is an inviting space, with warm wood tones, low lighting, and absolute quiet. It's tempting to spend time perusing the historical volumes that line the wood shelves.

Figures 5, 6. History of Medicine reading room (left) and shelves of rare books (right). Photos by Madeleine Stokowski.


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