Senators Lister Hill (Democrat of Alabama) and John F. Kennedy (Democrat of Massachusetts) introduced the legislation that created the National Library of Medicine. After wrangling about the location of the library, Congress finally passed the bill, and it was signed into law by President Eisenhower August 3, 1956. The act established the library, created a Board of Regents to advise it, and left the question of where the library should be located up to the Board. 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. Ten regents, drawn from academia, the health sciences, librarianship, public life, and industry, are appointed by the Secretary for four-year terms. In addition to the appointed members, there are nine ex-officio members who are high-ranking federal officials in related fields, including the Surgeons General of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Public Health Service. Pioneering heart surgeon Michael E. DeBakey, MD, whose persuasiveness in the halls of the Congress was instrumental in the passage of the NLM Act, chaired the first NLM Board of Regents. Almost 40 years later he was appointed to another term. Reacting with dispatch to the act's provision for a new building, that original Board, at their second meeting, recommended that a ten-acre tract on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, be designated the site of a new building for the National Library of Medicine . 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 has been 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, which created a program of grants and called for the establishment of a system of regional libraries; and the legislation establishing the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications (1968), the National Center for Biotechnology Information (1988), and the National Information Center on Health Services Research and Health Care Technology (1993).