ORGANIZATION: National Library of Medicine
ACTIVE DATES: 1818-present
PERSONS INVOLVED: Scott Adams; John Shaw Billings; Marsden S. Blois; Melvin S. Day; Fielding Hudson Garrison; Cloyd D. Gull; Frank B. Rogers; Winifred Sewell; Seymour I. Taine; Harold Wooster

In 1818, the Library began when Joseph Lovell, Surgeon General, purchased reference books and journals for his office. In 1840, the library's first known publications listing was created. In 1864, the first printed catalog of 2100 volumes was made. In 1869 the first listing of bibliographies was created. In 1871 the library strove to develop a collection that contained "every medical book published in this country and every work relating to public and state medicine" with coverage of all publications relating to military organizations, medicine, and allied sciences." By 1873-74, the library was the largest medical library in the U.S.

In 1879 Index Medicus, a periodical listing of titles of current medical articles, etc., was printed. In 1880, the first volume of Index-Catalogue was printed. In 1927, the Quarterly Cumulative Index Medicus was formed. Between 1937 and 1942, Current List of Medical Literature, a rapid finding aid, was created. In 1956, Bill S.3430 was passed "to promoted the progress of medicine and to advance the national health and welfare by creating NLM. In 1960, MEDLARS was created. In 1966, the NLM Current Catalog, one of the first recurring automated book catalogs, was created. In 1968 transferred to NIH; In 1972, TOXICON/TOXILINE was created and in 1975 MEDLARS II was created.

SOURCE: Miles, Wyndham D. A History of the National Library of Medicine. US Dept. of Health & Human Services: Bethesda, MD, 1982.

National Archives, Washington, DC; In NNTA-N, NNSM, NNSP, and NSXA branches of the NA.
SIZE: 472 cu. ft./114 items.
INCLUDES: Motion pictures, video recordings, posters, and data sets. Listed under the Records of the National Institute of Health.
SOURCE: National Archives (

Archives of NLM are scattered in a variety of records groups in the National Archives and several collections of the History of Medicine at NLM.
INCLUDES: No complete guide was prepared for these collections; For more information, contact History of Medicine Department at NLM (301)496-5405.


The Army Medical Library was established in 1818 when Joseph Lovell, the Surgeon General, purchased reference books and journals for his office. In 1840 the library published its first list of publications in a manuscript notebook. Twenty-four years later, in 1864, the library printed its first catalog containing 2100 volumes. The library published its first list of bibliographies in 1869. Two years later, in 1871, the library decided to develop its collection nationally. The library's goal was to "contain every medical book published in this country and every work relating to public health and state medicine." This collection would be "as complete as possible in all publications relating to military organizations, medicine, and allied sciences." The library strove to provide "an universal library of references" (Miles).

In 1879 the library began publishing Index Medicus, a periodical listing the titles of current medical articles, books, reports, and other medical literature. In 1927, using funds from the Carnegie Institute, Index Medicus merged with the Quarterly Cumulative Index forming the Quarterly Cumulative Index Medicus. From 1937 until 1942, the library ran a program, "Medicofilm," which provided microfilm access to medical literature to patrons. In 1941 the library published The Current List of Medical Literature a "rapid finding aid" to all current articles and microfilm copies in the library's possession.

On 13 March 1956, Lister Hill and Senator John F. Kennedy submitted Bill S.3430 to Congress, which promoted "the progress of medicine and advanced national health and welfare by creating the National Library of Medicine" (Miles). On 3 August 1956 President Eisenhower signed the legislation which transformed the Armed Forces Medical Library into the National Library of Medicine.

The NLM soon became an "international leader in automated services". In 1958 the Director of the library, Dr. Frank B. Rogers, began looking into computer use. While Rogers was investigating computer usage, Winifred Sewell was revising the Medical Subject Headings list in case the NLM adopted a computer-based system. In 1959 the NLM contracted a biomedical computer expert to "investigate the feasibility of using electronic digital computers for publication of the Index Medicus and as a basis for construction of efficient reference and biographic services" .

During the early 1960s, the NLM hired General Electric's Defense Systems Department (Lilley and Trice) to develop a new "method of using computers for composition, storage, and retrieval, and printing services for Index Medicus." This new system was called MEDLARS (Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System). The MEDLARS system, which was operational by 1964, produced a printed index and offered specialized subject bibliographies (Bellardo and Bourne).

The MEDLARS system had to meet certain criteria before the NLM would consider using it. The system must be computer-based, and it must have a unit record from which all other output is derived. Finally, the subject headings must be extended beyond the typical two or three headings assigned to each item at the Library of Congress or at the manual NLM system. MEDLARS met all three expectations. Later, MEDLARS was expanded to bring cataloging "into line" and changes were made allowing MEDLARS to become a cataloging and indexing system (Lilley and Trice).

During the late 1960s NLM worked with several different systems in order to learn about the latest online developments. In January 1968, NLM gained access to the CIRCOL system allowing the staff to observe a functioning online system. In October 1968, NLM contracted with SDC to use the ORBIT system to experiment with online systems. NLM also considered installing the SUNY system, but it could not be easily expanded to fit the needs of the NLM without great and expensive modifications.

After viewing and using online systems, the NLM staff wanted to combine its database and telecommunications with an online system, which led to the development of AIM-TWX and ELHILL. NLM decided to use the TWX (Teletypewriter Exchange Network) of AT&T and AIM (Abridged Index Medicus). SDC modified ORBIT II to met the special searching needs of the MEDLARS system. NLM named this retrieval system ELHILL. ELHILL "was the first large-scale online retrieval system to offer the capability to display a thesaurus hierarchy of subject-related search terms, and to allow searchers to incorporate parts or all of the hierarchy into their search strategy" .

In 1970 and 1971, F. Wilfrid Lancaster performed a formal evaluation of the AIM-TWX system in which he hoped to determine the "potential benefits of such a service to users, and to provide empirically-based answers to a range of questions concerning the technical aspects of the system." After concluding this evaluation, Lancaster and the staff at NLM realized that a network like AIM-TWX would work and that a demand for an expanded online system existed. The staff at NLM wanted to reduce the cost of this service and realized that if NLM ran the system it would be less expensive; therefore, the staff began to look into running the system themselves (Bellardo and Bourne).

NLM awarded a contract to the Computer Science Corporation for the technical development of MEDLARS II but later canceled the contract when the performance of the system did not meet NLM's expectations. Later that same year, 1971, Director Martin M. Cummings (NLM), gave SDC the contract to complete the MEDLARS II system. SDC completed its work at the end of 1974 (Lilley and Trice). MEDLARS II used online interactive searching and retrieval capabilities rather than the batch-mode retrieval used in MEDLARS I (Bellardo and Bourne).

In October 1971, the NLM began putting part of the MEDLARS database on its computer in Bethesda, Maryland. After months of hard work, NLM had added to the database, now called MEDLINE, bibliographic records and subject indexing for 1,200 journals, which were worldwide in scope and covered the three most recent years as well as the current year. The MEDLINE system began servicing medical schools, libraries, hospitals, and research institutions in the United States, Canada, England, and France.

Usage of the MEDLINE system grew at such a terrific rate during 1972 that in early 1973 the NLM awarded a contract to SUNY BCN to provide additional online service for its users. As MEDLINE grew, the NLM staff created numerous new databases, including SERLINE, SDILINE, CATLINE, CANCERPROJ, and EPILEPSYLINE (Bellardo and Bourne). In 1972 TOXICON , an online system containing pharmacology and toxicology, was opened to users. The NLM developed MEDLARS III in 1979 (Lilley and Trice).

[Sources: Lilley, D. B. & Trice, R. W. (1989). A history of information science, 1945-1985. San Diego: Academic Press. And Miles, W. D. (1982). A history of the National Library of Medicine. US Department of Health and Human Services: Bethesda, Maryland.]


Page updated 14 January 1998