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Region 4 News June 18th, 2024
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Making the Greatest Medical Library in America: Digitization

Posted in: Partners Sharing Information


An NLM librarian scanning a book using a Zeutschel scanner, 2019A new online exhibition, Making the Greatest Medical Library in America, showcases a selection of 19th century pamphlets acquired early in the NLM’s history from the private library of renowned French physician Claude Bernard. The exhibition also celebrates the NLM’s work collecting and preserving the world’s medical knowledge. This post is the third in a series that expands upon topics explored in the exhibition.

When John Shaw Billings took the helm of the Library of the Office of the Surgeon General (now the National Library of Medicine (NLM)) in 1865, he envisioned that the Library would house a comprehensive and open collection of materials that captured the world’s medical knowledge. Expanding the Library’s holdings by hundreds of thousands of volumes and making them available to health professionals during his 30-year tenure, he created a legacy of stewardship and access that NLM not only continues but also considers to be part of its core mission. Today, NLM reaches a wide audience and provides online access to its ever increasing digitized physical collections through NLM Digital Collections and Profiles in Science as well as PubMed Central (PMC) which provides access to hundreds of digitized backfiles of historically significant biomedical journals, along with their human- and computer-readable citations.

The exhibition Making the Greatest Medical Library in America showcases volumes of medical pamphlets collected by French physiologist Claude Bernard and featured in an 1878 exhibition at the then-Library of the Office of the Surgeon General.

An African American man sits at a workstation scanning a book and looking at the scan on a computer monitor
An NLM librarian using a Cobra scanner, 2019

Digitizing such rare collection material is a highly collaborative process involving diverse staff expertise. Generally speaking, this process involves conservation librarians ensuring that the material is physically complete and sufficiently stable for the scanning process. They also advise on any special handling instructions to avoid damage, and to address distinctive aspects of the material such as foldout pages. Catalogers review the library records of the material to ensure their compliance with national standards, accuracy, and completeness.

Librarians scan physically stable collections through scanners which are capable of handling high volume quickly, while oversized items, which cannot fit in a scanner, are photographed. The scanning process also involves careful image quality control and metadata development, and any damage to the material after scanning is handled by conservators. Staff ingest the final images and metadata into NLM Digital Collections for public access as well as digital preservation. Additionally, staff update the library’s catalog records and files are transmitted to Internet Archive for wider public access. The original collection materials are returned to the NLM stacks for physical preservation.

An illustration showing a complicated tabletop apparatus
Scanned foldout page from Zur Muskelphysiologie und Physik (Muscle Physiology and Physics), Jacob Schmulewitsch, 1868
National Library of Medicine #101749112

The process of making Making the Greatest Medical Library—and the story it tells—reflects NLM’s longstanding mission to acquire, preserve, and make publicly available information pertinent to medicine, including, of course, the Library’s world-renowned collection of physical material spanning eleven centuries and originating from all parts of the globe. Digitization allows us to preserve the medical past and put it at your fingertips.

Explore Making the Greatest Medical Library online and learn more about NLM’s work collecting and preserving the world’s medical knowledge in this series.

This article originally was posted on the National Library of Medicine’s Circulating Now blog in March 2024. 

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Contact us at:
Network of the National Library of Medicine/NNLM Region 4
University of Utah
Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library
10 North 1900 East
Salt Lake City, UT 84112-5890
Phone: 801-587-3650
This project has been funded in whole or in part with Federal funds from the Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, under cooperative agreement number UG4LM012344 with the University of Utah Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library.

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