Libraries · Library · Reviews

Library Review: National Library of Medicine


By Joey Payton

What’s the largest and most accessible repository of biomedical information in the world? Look no further than the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD.

Since the library is inside the NIH campus, you must go through a security inspection. but once you’ve received your visitor’s badge you can explore at leisure.

“Anyone who has ID that can get onto the NIH campus can come into the library,”  said Dr. Wanda Whitney, a librarian and NLM’s Head of User Services.

Healthcare Information at Your Fingertips

With healthcare being among the list of top concerns for Americans, it’s comforting to know that accurate, relevant, and up-to-date information is only a Metro-ride or a click away.

Bibliophiles in the DC area should make an effort to visit the NLM in person because it brings some perks: “The databases that we have a subscription to can only be accessed here (in the NLM),” Whitney said.

Fortunately, the NLM considers the people who can’t visit in-person, “We make our own databases that anyone can use. Just go to our websites. That’s your tax dollars at work,” said Whitney. “We have lots of free resources—almost 300 of them–databases, APIs, websites, apps.”

Keeping History Relevant

Helping people get access to medical information is just one of NLM’s specialties, and it’s been doing this for a long time.

“We are actually older than the National Institutes of Health,” said Whitney. “We used to be part of the Surgeon General of the Army. With legislation, we became part of the public health service, and moved from downtown D.C. to this campus.”

NLM continues to show how medical history has contemporary implications through its ‘History of Medicine’ division. One focus of this division is creating compelling medical history exhibits. “The current exhibit that we have is in conjunction with Mount Vernon. It’s about how the slaves were responsible for all the cooking and the nutrition [on Mt. Vernon],” said Whitney.

According to Whitney, the NLM is also home to some special collections, most notably, a Nobel Prize recipient’s writings. “We have Marshall Nirenberg’s writings from when he was working on his discovery. He was a scientist here at NIH so we have his lab notebooks, and his medal—his Nobel Prize for his confirmation of the structure of DNA,” Whitney said.

NLM’s can be enjoyed in-person, online or in various cities with the traveling displays, Whitney said.


Extending NLMs Impact

The NLM’s institute status grants it the ability to give grants (pun intended). “When you’re an institute then we also get money so we can do grants as well, just like the National Cancer Institute or any of the other institutes,” said Whitney. “The grant money we give out is for topics like using bio-informatics to improve health because that’s our focus.”

Along with grants, NLM does outreach with schools and libraries across the U.S. and its territories.

If you’re a lover of books and knowledge, I can’t think of a better place to satiate one’s appetite for medical information than Bethesda’s NLM.

Fun fact/shameless plug: I discovered this library on my way home from a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (My wife, Jancy, and I found out that we’ll become the proud parents of a baby–watch the gender reveal!)

Fast Facts

Place: National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD

General theme: World’s largest repository of biomedical literature

Hours: Monday-Friday; 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM

A Brief History: The NLM started in 1863 as a small collection of medical books and journals in the office of the United States Army Surgeon General. In 1962, the collection moved to the National Institutes of Health.

Food/Drink: Yes. Dining Center located in NLM annex, Lister Hill National Center of Biomedical Communications. No food or drinks are allowed in the reading rooms.

Wifi: Yes.

Appointment necessary: No, but remember your ID!

If this place were band: Johann Sebastian Bach – The Well-Tempered Clavier 


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