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NLM Legislation

Senators Lister Hill (D-AL) and John F. Kennedy (D-MA) introduced the legislation that created the National Library of Medicine. After debating about the location of the library, Congress finally passed the bill. President Dwight D. Eisenhower August 3, 1956 signed it into law. The act established the library and created a Board of Regents to advise it. This act also let the Board decide the location of the library. The legislation mandated that the new library:

  • acquire and preserve books, periodicals, prints, films, recordings and other library materials pertinent to medicine;
  • organize the materials...by appropriate cataloging, indexing and bibliographical listing;
  • publish...catalogs, indexes and bibliographies;
  • make available, through loans, photographic or other copying procedures...materials in the materials in the library;
  • provide reference and research assistance; and
  • engage in such other activities in furtherance of the purposes of this part as (the Surgeon General) deems appropriate and the library's resources permit.

The Board of Regents advises the HHS Secretary on matters of policy affecting the library. The Secretary of the Board appoints ten regents, who serve four-year terms. The regents come from academia, the health sciences, librarianship, public life, and industry. In addition to the appointed members, nine high-ranking federal officials in related fields are ex-officio members. They are from the Surgeons General of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Public Health Service. Pioneering heart surgeon Michael E. DeBakey, MD, instrumental in the passage of the NLM Act, chaired the first Board. He was appointed to another board term almost 40 years later. At their second meeting, the Board recommended the site of a new building for the National Library of Medicine. It was a ten-acre tract on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Five years later, in 1962, the library moved from the Washington Mall to its new $7 million building in Bethesda.

The wording of the original legislation was amended several times. The six functions listed above have been expanded with a seventh: "publicize the availability from the Library of the above products and services” and an eighth: "promote the use of computers and telecommunications." Other congressional actions have had a profound effect on the library. The Medical Library Assistance Act (MLAA) of 1965 created a program of grants and called for the establishment of a system of regional libraries. In 1968, legislation established the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications (1968). Twenty years later, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (1988) was established. In 1993, legislation established the National Information Center on Health Services Research and Health Care Technology.