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A celebration of the first reported exhibition at the National Library of Medicine

In 1878, on a quest to bring together and catalog the world’s medical knowledge, Dr. John Shaw Billings, in charge of the Surgeon General’s library—now the National Library of Medicine (NLM), acquired about 300 pamphlets from the private library of the renowned French physiologist Claude Bernard, who had just died.

These scientific pamphlets illuminate the professional associations and intellectual interests of one of medicine’s pioneer thinkers.

In the fall of that year, Billings displayed this collection in the library’s first reported exhibition. 

To celebrate this “pop-up” exhibition, Making the Greatest Medical Library in America recognizes the institution’s long history of collecting, cataloging, and communicating quality medical information to generations of patrons, scholars, students, visitors, and citizens.

First Exhibition

A Showcase from a Growing Collection

Under the leadership of Dr. John Shaw Billings, the Surgeon General’s library, a precursor the NLM, developed into a prominent resource of biomedical literature. Billings acquired tens of thousands of works, including volumes from the private library of renowned French physician Claude Bernard. In 1878, Billings displayed Bernard’s items in the first reported exhibition in the NLM’s history, representing the growing importance of the institution and its holdings.

A 19th-century black and white portrait of a white man
A 19th-century black and white portrait of a white man
A page of text in a book


Network of Pamphlets

In Europe, after the introduction of printing, people produced and distributed pamphlets about politics, theology, science, and medicine—an early type of idea sharing network. Librarians and bibliographers define “pamphlet” with precision: small format, short (usually less than 50 pages), cheaply bound in paper wrappers, if they were bound at all. In 1880, two years after the first exhibition, Dr. Billings had acquired 60,000 pamphlets.

A pamphlet sits open atop two stacks of pamphlets
A title page of a book, Deux Ascensions Mont-Blanc
An illustration of an apparatus from a book


An old book in disrepair, held together by strings

Continuity of Care

The Conservation Program at the NLM maintains books, manuscripts, and prints and photographs to allow access for research and exhibitions and to preserve collections for future users. It provides assessments, stabilization and treatment of collections, and protective housing and storage for rare and fragile materials. To keep the Claude Bernard collection available for patrons, the NLM’s conservation staff repaired the books.


Cataloging for Discovery

Catalogers at the NLM organize information about the collection to make sure materials are findable, accessible, and retrievable in the online catalog. With accurate access points for the title, author, and publication information, as well as subject headings and item-level descriptions, users can quickly discover and access the pamphlets previously owned by Claude Bernard.

A page from a pamphlet showing color illustrations of frog blood and lymphatic vessels
A title page for the pamphlet, Note sur le Pachytylus Migratorius


A color illustration of animal reproductive organs

Digitizing for the Future

Digitization provides a fuller, richer contribution to the possibilities of human inquiry for researchers of both today and tomorrow. It requires a balance between ensuring quality products, meeting high production goals, and keeping machines running smoothly. To achieve this, technicians use large format book scanners that work at relatively high speeds and accommodate a variety of shapes, sizes, and formats; in conjunction with specialized software to crop scanned images, identify text within the document, and generate object-level metadata to aid description and discovery.

An illustration of an apparatus from a book


Making the Greatest Medical Library in America recognizes the National Library of Medicine’s long history of collecting, cataloging, and communicating quality medical information to generations of patrons and citizens. This exhibition was originally curated in 2019, and released in 2023, with the expertise of the individuals listed below.

Exhibition Program

Jiwon Kim

Lead Exhibit Specialist

Erika Mills

Exhibit Specialist

Jane Markowitz

Traveling Exhibition Coordinator

Web Design

Astriata, LLC

Baltimore, MD


Stephen Greenberg, PhD

Rare Book Librarian

Jessica Hemphill


Holly Herro

Senior Conservator

Krista Stracka

Rare Book Cataloger

Special Acknowledgement

History of Medicine Division

Jeffrey Reznick, PhD


Kenneth Koyle

Deputy Chief

Elizabeth Mullen

Manager, Web Development and Social Media

Allison Cao

Web Programs

Office of Computer and Communications

Wei Ma

Chief, Application Branch

Winston Churchill

Application Branch

Joe Potvin

Application Branch

Ying Sun

Application Branch

Bibliographic Services Division

Carol Washer

Index Section

Public Services Division

Jean (Bob) Edouard

Collection Access Section

Technical Services Division

Elizabeth J. Plantz

Cataloging and Metadata Management Section

Kristina R. Womack

Collection Development & Acquisitions Section