A Visit to the National Library of Medicine
by Marianne Reynolds, Reference Department

It was a lovely spring morning when I journeyed to the National Library of Medicine on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The last of the delicate cherry blossoms were still clinging to the trees, emitting the most delicious scent, and bright tulips abounded in the lavish greenery of Bethesda. This external beauty did little to prepare me for the adventure that lay in store just beyond the first of many security checkpoints inside the National Library of Medicine.

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) is the largest biomedical library in the world. The library began as a collection of books in the office of the United States Army Surgeon General and has since been through many transformations and locations, including a stint at Ford’s Theatre after President Lincoln’s assassination. NLM produces many databases, the two most well-known are PubMed, for biomedical research and MedlinePlus, for consumer health queries.

Once inside NLM, my possessions were searched, my ID checked, and my person badged. I was lucky enough to see behind the scenes where the magic happens. Every citation listed in PubMed is indexed by live individuals at NLM, and the servers for PubMed and MedlinePlus are on site. A real-life James Bond-like iris scanner is stationed outside the sealed doors of the server room, allowing only those with clearance into the heart of NLM.

A particular favorite of mine on the tour of NLM was The Visible Human Project. Two cadavers, one male, one female, were cryogenically frozen, sliced by a large band saw at intervals of 1/3 to 1 millimeter, and imaged using CT and MRI technologies (for definitions of these terms, see the following: http://www.radiologyinfo.org/glossary/glossary1.cfm).

The images were transferred to computer, creating virtual humans with complex anatomical features that physicians use to understand how the human body functions. The Visible Human Project is also used by surgeons in conjunction with patients’ own CT and MRI scans to plan the best methods and approaches to surgeries. More information on The Visible Human Project can be located on the NLM website at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/research/visible/visible_human.html. What isn’t revealed on the website is who the donors were. The female donor was a housewife who died of an unexpected heart attack and the male donor was an inmate on death row in Texas who was executed by lethal injection. Apparently, the male donor had quite a notorious past involving numerous, murderous activities. I’d like to reveal my sources, but if I told you, well, you know the rest.

The trip to Bethesda was exciting and the visit to NLM was like making contact with the mother ship. I must admit though, I’ve become spoiled being able to walk to the union for lunch without going through various security checkpoints, metal detectors and wearing two identification tags, which is apparently an everyday process for NLM staffers eating at the onsite cafeteria.

NLM is open to the public, and visitors are welcome on tours. Information can be located at the following address: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/psd/ref/guide/rrhours.html. If you do decide to make the trip, let me know, because there’s a great little gelato place just down the road…