National Library of Medicine at Bethesda


A review of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), Bethesda, Maryland, United States of America.

The US National Library of Medicine (NLM) is located in the National Institute of Health (NIH) campus, Bethesda, Maryland, part of the Washington DC Metropolitan Area (Visitor & Researcher Information). As the largest medical library in the world, it is a must-visit place for students of history of medicine. In 2012, I spent three months in this library for my dissertation project: global networks and the making of tropical medicine in twentieth-century China. Compared to my past fieldwork experiences in China, I found myself really enjoying conducting research in NLM, because of its considerable collections and friendly services.

It is a little complicated but still quite convenient to get registered at the NLM. Take the Red Line of the Washington Metro to Medical Center Station, and you will arrive at the NIH campus via the station’s escalators. You can also drive or take shuttles, but from my own experience, the Metro is the most time-saving way. In the first place you must register at the NIH Gateway Center to get a daily visitor pass, with any proof of identity (with a photograph of yourself on it), such as a passport or a driving license. Do keep in mind that you have to apply for this daily pass each time you enter the NIH campus. The National Library of Medicine is a five-minute walk from the Gateway Center (NIH Visitor Map). You can find a Main Reading Room and a History of Medicine Division (HMD) Reading Room in this library. You need to take five minutes or so to finish your final registration in the Main Reading Room and then will receive your photo-ID library card. With this card, you may submit requests for items (up to 50 files at one time) through the NLM online catalog LocatorPlus at any of the workstations in the two reading rooms. Before you arrive at the NLM, you may search this online catalog to get acquainted with what they have, but all requests must be done onsite. The difference between the two reading rooms is: requested journals (post-1871) and books (post-1914) must be picked up at the Circulation Desk in the Main Reading Room, while older materials, archives and manuscript collections marked as “HMD Collection” must be picked up at the HMD Circulation Desk.

Since I specifically looked for secondary publications on the history of tropical medicine, and major medical materials published in early-twentieth century China, I mostly worked in the Main Reading Room. Most of my requested items, such as the China Medical Journal (1887- 1966), were in original paper formats. With the librarians’ permission (and in fact, they seldom say no), I could take photos of those materials for free (yes, my dear friends who are doing archival work in China, I can)! Some documents, such as the Transactions of Far East Association of Tropical Medicine (1912-1934), had been digitized, and I needed to use microfilm reader-printers to read and print them with my library card (12 cents per page, the charge is still reasonable). On several occasions, when the materials I requested were in poor condition, the librarian would ask if I needed their copy service (12 cents per page, but limited for 50 pages per item due to copyright) or onsite reading by myself. Not surprisingly, I always chose the latter one. And the librarian would lead me to the downstairs onsite reading spot, where I still could take images of my materials. Sometimes I also went to the HMD reading room, where by accident I found several useful historical documents to my project: the full collection of The Medical Reports of Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs (1871-1911) and the Louis Laval William papers. The latter is a collection of records of the US military’s malaria research team on the Yunnan-Burma Road during the 1930s -1940s: their close connection with US military authorities in Washington DC, Rockefeller Foundation in New York and medical colleagues in India strongly support my major argument on the role of global networks in the making of tropical medicine in modern China (Check the HMD Manuscript Collections, you might have some unexpected findings). The librarians in the reading rooms are very patient and helpful.

The two reading rooms in NLM are operated from Monday to Friday (8:30 am – 5:00 pm) and closed weekends and Federal holidays (refer to the Holiday Closings for NLM Reading Rooms). The final request time is 4:00 pm. The Circulation Desks are staffed from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm and 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. If you need assistance between 12:30 pm and 2:00 pm, the staff at the Reference Desk or the Patron Registration Desk will also help you. During this time, you can have lunch in the library cafeteria, or visit their wonderful exhibitions on the history of medicine both onsite and online (Online Exhibitions). The NLM also hosts many history of medicine lectures; check their online schedule (Lecture Series).

Yubin Shen
Department of History
Georgetown University

Image: Photograph by Yubin Shen.

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