Laws, Leaders, and Legends of the Modern National Library of Medicine

Article excerpt

Purpose: The paper is an expanded version of the 2007 Joseph Leiter National Library of Medicine (NLM)/Medical Library Association Lecture presented at MLA '07, the Medical Library Association annual meeting in Philadelphia in May 2007. It presents an historical accounting of four major pieces of legislation, beginning with the NLM Act of 1956 up through the creation of the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Brief Description: The transition from the United States Armed Forces Medical Library to the United States National Library of Medicine in 1956 was a major turning point in NLM's history, scope, and direction. The succeeding landmark legislative achievements-namely, the 1965 Medical Library Assistance Act, the 1968 Joint Resolution forming the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications, and the 1988 authorization for the National Center for Biotechnology Information-transformed the library into a major biomedical communications institution and a leader and supporter of an effective national network of libraries of medicine. The leaders of the library and its major advocates-including Dr. Michael DeBakey, Senator Lister Hill, and Senator Claude Pepper-together contributed to the creation of the modern NLM.


American citizens, for whom the health of their loved ones is always of primary concern, can take great pride in their National Library of Medicine [NLM], which takes life-giving knowledge from research, organizes it, and transmits it to those who can best use it to fight disease and disability and to improve the quality of life for all of us.

These words, expressed at the time of NLM's sesquicentennial by then President Ronald Reagan, attest to the integral part the library has played in fostering the nation's biomedical research and public health agenda. This dynamic role would not have been fully realized had it not been for the laws, leaders, and legends of the modern NLM. This talk in honor of Dr. Joseph Leiter at the 2007 MLA annual meeting provides an historical accounting of that important period between 1956 and 1988 when major laws were passed, leaders excelled, and legendary supporters of NLM helped secure landmark pieces of legislation.


It is a distinct honor for me to be associated with this lecture named for Joe Leiter. Joe Leiter was for many years NLM's associate director for Library Operations, and he was one of the most important figures in the history of the 171-year-old National Library of Medicine. Although Joe Leiter was a tough manager, he had strong humanistic qualities. He did much for advancing librarianship and recruiting women and minorities into the profession. Joe Leiter stamped "quality" on everything he pursued, and to lecture in his name 'is to have the bar set high.

This lecture, in his name, will be a bit of a trip down memory lane, for Joe Leiter and I traveled much of this road together. It will be like a play with four acts featuring three leading actors and a distinguished cast of supporting actors. Our play deals with the modern NLM, so we will dispense with 1836 and those early beginnings and focus our examination beginning in 1956. That year was marked by interesting people and events: the United States presidential ticket of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon was elected, Martin Luther King emerged as a leader of desegregation, Fidel Castro began his invasion of Cuba and the overthrow of Fulgencia Batista, and Elvis Presley burst onto the scene with "Blue Suede Shoes." Science was advancing, with Bell Labs beginning the development of the visual telephone and Albert Sabin creating the oral polio vaccine. Of greatest importance, however, to the future of the library was the passage of the 1956 NLM Act, which in 2006 celebrated its fiftieth anniversary and was so noted in Congress through a concurrent resolution [1].


Dr. …