In the past few weeks, we have been featuring various museum and library collections, and today I have the pleasure of presenting the National Library of Medicine. An agency of the United States government, the NLM is a component of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of the world’s foremost public research centers. The NLM itself is the world’s largest biomedical library with a collection of over twelve million books, journals, manuscripts, audiovisuals, and other forms of medical information. 2011 marked its 175th anniversary, and the Library continues to be a valuable resource for the researcher, the writer, and the intrepid and curious soul. Even Mary Roach (award-winning author of Gulp and Stiff) considers the collection a kind of “fantasy holiday,” a place when our medical past connects to our present and our future.
Not only is the NLM the world’s largest biomedical library, it also hosts comprehensive electronic resources on a wide range of topics searchable from around the globe. Why is that important? Well, as expressed in the recent DD series Digital Collections, online archives are one of the fastest-growing means of connecting museum and library collections to a waiting and eager public. We are a global community, and these online centers – and corresponding blogs and RSS or twitter feeds – have become the watering holes for a dispersed public interested in the origins and development of our shared medical history. The past is not dead; it is alive with stories, a living compendium composed of images, words, texts, voices.
The National Library of Medicine
During the past three decades, the NLM has come to have global influence through developing electronic information services that deliver trillions of bytes of data to millions of users every day, including consumer health information, drug information, clinical trials data, genetic/genomic data, and toxicology and environmental data. Scientists, scholars, educators, health professionals, and the general public in the United States and around the world search these and the NLM’s many other information resources more than one billion times each year.
The new blog of the NLM’s History of Medicine Division, Circulating Now, complements the broader history of the Library in important ways. The very name of the blog is significant: for over 175 years the NLM’s historical collections have circulated to generations within the reading rooms of its various locations in and around Washington, DC. Now, these collections—as part of the vast data produced and delivered by the NLM—circulate daily to millions of people around the world. Circulating Now sustains the tradition and commitment of the NLM, and libraries everywhere, to provide knowledge and expertise freely and to inspire people and enrich lives. Circulating Now also conveys the vitality of medical history in our 21st-century world: its relevance and importance for research, teaching, and learning about the human condition. And Circulating Now evokes the living quality of the NLM’s historical collections and the stories they offer about the experience of health and disease here in the United States and around the world.
Interview with Jeff Reznick, NLM
Welcome, Jeff! Thank you for joining us!
1.) I agree with Mary Roach – the NLM (rather like the Wellcome Library) is something of a fantasy playground for history of medicine. What is it like to work in Wonderland? What drew you to the NLM and what sustains you?
The NLM is a great place to work for a scholar-administrator like me who is dedicated equally to the practice of history and to making sure that public resources that support that practice are well understood, openly available, and preserved for future generations of scholars, educators, and students. I’m really very lucky – and I think about this every day – that my job allows me time to explore our collections and to work with them in creative ways, not merely in terms of my own scholarship but in larger, collaborative, and arguably more important ways that help to make our collections better known and used today, and to insure that they will be around for the benefit of future generations of scholars, educators, students, and the general public. Thankfully, a lot of things sustain me in my work – my love of history and organizations that support the historical enterprise in its many forms, a great group of colleagues – but the realization that the federal government as a whole is (and has been for generations) the steward of amazing historical collections, sites, and resources, is, well, probably the greatest motivation. Add to that a lot of exciting initiatives that are going on now – despite sequestration – like the intersection of “big data” with the history of medicine, greater opportunities to build partnerships among and between likeminded agencies, the progress of the field of digital humanities in building bridges among and between disciplines and organizations… well, it’s a pretty cool time to be in public service. And let’s not forget the outstanding progress of the Medical Heritage Library during the past two years, the recent launch of the Digital Public Library of America – and all of the great promise that initiative holds – as well as the Hathi Trust… There is a lot of change afoot, and I feel fortunate to be at the NLM with my colleagues, to help the Library and its partners play a positive role in that change. Of course, the very subject of change can make some people nervous, and even some historians uncomfortable. When I think about this I’m reminded of something that Jennifer Pahlka recently suggested, which I learned about through an article on Nextgov.com. The key to working in government, and to being successful in that work, is thinking about government as if it were a person. “You can’t change it unless you love it,” Pahlka said. So, I guess what sustains me is my thinking – as a historian and as a someone working in the public sector – that we owe it to previous generations to try to change in positive ways that will help to make sure their legacies and the documentation of their legacies are not merely accessible, useful, and valuable for today – for research, teaching, and learning – but more importantly for tomorrow.
2.) I have been trying to forge new connections between museums and libraries, and I’ve been wondering about the historical (and contemporary) relationship between the NLM and the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM). Can you tell us a bit about that historical relationship, how you might be working with NMHM, and what other museum collaborations you might have ongoing or on the horizon?
I was senior curator of the NMHM from 2005 to 2007. Talk about a fantastic collection and staff! I feel very fortunate to have worked there, and I may be the only person who, at least in modern times (since World War II), has worked both at the museum and its institutional “sister,” the NLM. I wrote this short piece for the History News Network about the move of the NMHM, and our related history, which may be of interest to your readers. The NLM and NMHM grew up together in the 19th century as two parts of a single institution, and remained that way until the NLM was separated from the museum in the 1950s to become part of NIH. One of our most recent collaborations with colleagues at the NMHM involved working with them to identify digital assets from their collections which we could highlight, alongside our own, in our blog series about the 1881 assassination of, and the attempts to save, the 20th President of the U.S., James A. Garfield.
To be able to promote our collections jointly in this way has been a real privilege. With regard to other museums, we work regularly with our colleagues at the National Museum of American History (NMAH). One of the outcomes of our collaboration was the 2011 joint exhibition entitled “So much in need of service” which told the story of Civil War nurse Amanda Akin. The display was housed in the Small Documents Gallery of the National Museum of American History, and it lives on as a virtual exhibition. We’ve also collaborated with the NMAH more recently. In 2012, we worked together on a special display here at the NLM entitled “Pick Your Poison: Intoxicating Pleasures and Medical Prescriptions,” which explores some of the factors that have shaped the changing definition of some of the most potent drugs. Open until this October, the display features rare books and ephemera from the collection of the National Library of Medicine, historic artifacts from the National Museum of American History, as well as photographs from the Library of Congress. We are also collaborating with the NMAH now on another special display that will be here at the NLM beginning this fall and have an online presence. Entitled “From DNA to Beer: Harnessing Nature in Medicine and Industry,” the project is about science, industry, medicine, and the public, with an emphasis on historical case studies that draw on material from both the NLM’s historical collections as well as the NMAH. We’re very excited about this collaboration, and our Exhibition Program is doing outstanding work to bring this display to fruition in cooperation with our colleagues at the NMAH.
Beyond the NMHM and the NMAH, we have been collaborating with other museums by closely working with them on loans of NLM historical materials for their exhibitions. In 2012, we loaned selected papers of Dr. Joseph Goldberger, the eminent Hungarian Jewish physician and epidemiologist who studied the connections between disease and poverty, as well as other materials to the Yeshiva University Museum in New York for their exhibition entitled Trail of the Magic Bullet: The Jewish Encounter with Modern Medicine, 1860-1960. More recently, we loaned Pierre Pomet’s Histoire générale des drogues (1694) and al-Qazwini’s Wonders of Creation (ca. 1700) to The Metropolitan Museum of Art for their Search for the Unicorn exhibition, which helped to mark The Cloisters’ 75th Anniversary by placing the institution’s famous Unicorn Tapestries within the larger context of medieval and Renaissance art. The loan itself was great partnership, and equally great was the coverage of the exhibition by the Huffington Post, thanks to the public relations team at the MET.
To build such cooperation between the NLM and museums – both through our own award-winning Exhibition Program and through loans of our collections to premiere cultural organizations – is exciting and important in terms of raising greater public awareness of one of the world’s finest history of medicine collections, and no less the history of medicine generally.
3.) The Dittrick Museum blog and the Daily Dose are the primary means by which I engage with the wider public. I find that blogging makes static information dynamic, that it re-energizes web work and connects disparate online platforms (like twitter and FB). I’d be interested to know if this is also how you envision Circulating Now? What was the impetus and what is your vision for future “circulations”?
This is precisely our vision for Circulating Now. We intend it to be an elastic, dynamic, and organic platform upon which we can share our historical collections with the world, and, in turn, the public can share their thoughts about our collections. We hope it will expand access points into the collection and become a creative platform to shape new collaborations and pursue new interrogations of the rich material under our stewardship. We hope, too, that Circulating Now could be valuable for our collaborators, whether institutions or individuals (or both) who are seeking out new ways to connect common collections and share the value of those connections with the public.
4.) Last, what is your favorite thing about working at? NLM generally (and with these new digital projects specifically)? I know I look forward to hearing and seeing more!
One of my favorite things about my job is working with my colleagues to reveal to the world the richness of our historical collections. With this blog, we can do this in new and exciting ways, and, I hope, connect new audiences to collections that they may have not known we hold, like our 750,000+ medical stamp collection, for example, or any one or more of the items featured in the 2011 book, Hidden Treasure, edited by NLM historian Michael Sappol, which helped to celebrate our collections for the NLM’s 175th anniversary. To work with our collections through my own scholarship is great, but equally if not sometimes more satisfying is working directly with our collections with my colleagues, as well as seeing what scholars outside the NLM, and the public, think about and do with our materials. Professionally speaking, I’m very much a “people-person” so to be able to be this kind of person in a public institution that has been dedicated to history for so many generations is, well, really humbling and fantastic. That’s really what sustains me: being part of a public enterprise that has been around for a long time, and hopefully will be for generations to come.
Thank you, Jeff! Stay tuned for a second installment, where we will speak to other members of the NLM!