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National Library of Medicine     

The world's greatest medical library, like so many other medical libraries, began as an accumulation of books in a doctor's office. That doctor was Joseph Lovell, the surgeon general of the United States from 1818 to 1836; at his death in 1836 his books and journals became the nucleus of the Library of the Surgeon General's Office. That same year Lovell's successor requested a budget of $150 to purchase books for the collection, thereby providing an official date of establishment for what is now the National Library of Medicine.

Peripatetic from the start, the library changed locations when Lovell moved his home and office and later as the Surgeon General's Office moved. In 1866 the SGO and its library moved to Ford's Theatre, which had been remodeled for other uses because of public protest against its continued use as a theater after Lincoln's assassination. The SGO remained there for twenty-one years and then moved into its own red brick building on the Mall in 1887 (just a few years before the interior of Ford's Theatre collapsed). In 1942 the library established a branch in Cleveland, Ohio, to provide space for its historical treasures and protect them in case of bombing. However, the main portion of the collection remained in Wash­ington, D.C., in its building on the Mall throughout World War II. In 1962, after seventy-five years at that site, the library and its Cleveland branch moved to NLM's present home in Bethesda, Maryland.

The library not only changed locations frequentlyit also changed its name several times. It was known as the Library of the Surgeon General's Office from 1836 until 1922, when it was renamed the Army Medical Library. Eventually it became the library of all three military branches and in 1952 was renamed the Armed Forces Medical Library. The library was placed under the aegis of the Public Health Service in 1956 and changed its name to the National Library of Medicine.

Not unexpectedly, the library's bookplate also changed with each move and name change. Peter B. Hirtle, curator of Modern Manuscripts, His­tory of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, has provided clues to several bookplates and variants. The earliest bookplate known dates from 1869; it is small and plain, with numerous versions of the deco­rative border in existence. After 1922 the plate reflected the new name Army Medical Library, but retained the old logo of the Library of the Surgeon General's Office. Another plate used during that period included a patriotic view with the Washington Monument in the foreground and the Lincoln Memorial in the distance. This same bookplate, modified with the new name, was used when the library became the Armed Forces Medical Library. One plate in use shortly before the library's move to Bethesda shows the post-1956 name, National Library of Medicine, and the historic red brick building that housed the library on the Mall. Not shown on the bookplate is the building's outhouse, the last in the federal buildings. It remained, even after the installation of indoor plumbing, until the medical library moved to Bethesda and the building was demolished to build the Hirshhorn Museum. The bookplate in most recent use shows the new building in Bethesda, Maryland, where the National Library of Medicine is located today. These bookplates provide the historian with a much needed visual guide through a morass of overlapping name, location, and institutional affiliation changes. The role of bookplates in this library's history is ended; they are no longer in use at the National Library of Medicine.

With 4 million items, the National Library of Medicine is the largest medical library in the world. It attained this distinction under the direction of John Shaw Billings in the years after the Civil War, according to W. D. Miles (from whose detailed study, A History of the National Library of Medicine [Bethesda, Md.: National Library of Medicine, l982], the information for this cover story was gleaned). John Shaw Billings joined the surgeon general's staff in 1864; by 1867 he was in full charge of the library. During his thirty years at the library, Billings extended the indexing of the library's collections to its journal issues. He planned and published the Index-Cata­logue, a comprehensive, retrospective printed catalog of the collections, and he began the Index-Medicus, a monthly printed, classified index to the current medical literature. These initiatives evolved into the National Library of Medicine's famous on-line bibliographic database, MEDLINE. John Shaw Billings's bibliographic contributions and the collection he developed propelled the library into a national and international leadership role that it has never relinquished. 

Judith A. Overmier

School of Library and Information Studies

University of Oklahoma


[Originally published in Journal of Library History, vol. 26, no. 4 (Spring 1991): 608-610.]