An Historical Overview of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, 1985–2015

By Speaker, Susan L. | Journal of the Medical Library Association, April 2018 | Go to article overview

An Historical Overview of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, 1985–2015


Speaker, Susan L., Journal of the Medical Library Association


The Regional Medical Library (RML) Program, now the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM), has a rich and remarkable history, beginning in 1965. Alison Bunting, AHIP, FMLA, ably documented the network's first twenty years in her 1987 article, "The Nation's Health Information Network: History of the Regional Medical Library Program, 1965-1985" [1].

The following historical overview traces the major trends in the network's development between 1985 and 2015, drawing on three decades of primary and secondary sources. These include the library periodical literature, RML directors' meetings minutes, statements of work for successive five-year RML contracts, National Library of Medicine (NLM) annual reports, RML newsletters and blogs, and other materials, along with informal conversations with National Network Coordinating Office staffmembers. A careful review of these sources reveals how the network transformed itself during this time: growing, adapting, and evolving as information technology came of age and as both NLM and the RMLs, which originally focused on serving academically affiliated physicians, came to support a much larger, denser network of organizations offering health information resources to everyone.

REGIONAL MEDICAL LIBRARY (RML) DEVELOPMENT TO 1985

The idea for regional medical libraries emerged in the early 1960s, as medical school librarians, physicians, and federal officials began to consider how to improve the often poor condition and inadequate collections of US medical school libraries. In 1964, the President's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke noted that communication of current research would be essential in the battle against those diseases and warned that "unless major attention is directed to improvement of our national medical library base, the continued and accelerated generation of scientific knowledge will become increasingly an exercise in futility" [1].

The Medical Library Assistance Act of 1965 [2], part of a deluge of health-related legislation enacted that year, authorized NLM to provide grant funding to improve the condition and capabilities of medical libraries throughout the United States. The grants were available for (1) construction of new and renovation, expansion, or rehabilitation of existing medical library facilities; (2) training of medical librarians and other information specialists in the health sciences; (3) assistance to special scientific projects; (4) research in the field of medical library science and related fields; (5) improvement and expansion of basic resources of medical libraries and related facilities; (6) development of a national system of regional medical libraries; and (7) preparation of biomedical scientific publications [1].

During the next five years, NLM worked with medical libraries around the country to delineate the geographical regions and decide which institutions should be designated as the RML for each one. The first RML, Harvard University's Countway Medical Library, became operational in 1967; another ten were designated by 1970. Within each of the original eleven geographical regions was an RML; a number of Resource Libraries, usually medical school libraries; and a larger number of smaller Basic Health Sciences Libraries, located in hospitals, medical societies, and so on. Initially funded by grants, the RML network's basic activities were supported with competitive three-year contracts (later increased to five years) from 1971 to 2016. In 1982, with the Reagan-era government budget cuts, the network was reconfigured into seven regions.

The core responsibilities of the RMLs in the early years were to: (1) provide health professionals with basic information services: access to books, journals, audiovisuals, and literature databases; (2) improve and extend the interlibrary loan (ILL) services; (3) coordinate and extend the regional network; (4) coordinate the collection of regional holdings data; (5) compile union lists (which contributed to NLM's Serials Holdings database and facilitated ILL work); (6) train regional library staffto use NLM's medical citation database (the Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System [MEDLARS]) and other computer-based resources as they were developed; (7) assess the region's information needs and conduct evaluations of the various RML projects; and (8) promote the RMLs' work via published articles and newsletters about RML activities and exhibits at professional meetings. …

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