Pictorial History of Indexing at the US National Library of Medicine


For journals in the biomedical or life sciences, PubMed is likely their leading source of referral traffic and is an essential tool for researchers in these fields. The backbone of PubMed is MEDLINE, a database of over 25 million journal articles. Although much of the process is automated and online now, MEDLINE continues a tradition of indexing medical journal articles at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) that goes back to the 1870s with the creation of the Index Medicus, a monthly collection of journal citations. This collection needed to be manually collected, reviewed, and indexed by the NLM and the following photo essay highlights some of that process using photos from their digital archives. All photos and some of the photo caption text are from the US National Library of Medicine Digital Collections ( and are believed to be in the public domain. Soon after the Civil War, John Shaw Billings was put in charge of the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office, which later became the National Library of Medicine. He quickly moved to substantially expand the Library’s holdings, eventually making it the largest medical library in the United States. He did this in part through advertisements such as this in the New York Medical Record, September 15, 1873, attempting to fill gaps in the Library’s collection of journals. Billings would later start Index Medicus with Robert Fletcher. (1873;   The Seven Arts of Indexing a Journal Article. This undated cartoon provides an overview of the manual […]

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