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Collections: Rare Books & Journals

About the Rare Books & Journals Collection

Collection Description

The NLM historical collection of more than 600,000 printed works includes pre-1914 books and serials, thousands of pamphlets and dissertations, and pre-1871 journals. Material in the collection covers every area of the history of medicine and the health sciences in the United States and Europe, and substantial collections of Latin American and Asian publications. The journal collection includes bound and unbound medical journals dating from the 17th century through 1870. Additionally NLM holds over 300 Persian, Arabic, and Turkish manuscripts, dating from 1094 and a collection of Western manuscripts from the 13th to the 17th century.

Books Published before 1914

The collection includes over 580 incunabula (books printed before 1501), some 57,000 16th-18th century books, and 95,000 items published between 1801 and 1913. Nearly every European language and many Asian languages are represented. The book collection includes monographs, serials, pamphlets, medical school dissertations and catalogs, hospital, health department and other government reports.

Among works of popular and ephemeral interest are home health guides, pharmaceutical almanacs, patent medicine catalogs, medical equipment catalogs, personal narratives, first-hand accounts, broadsides, pharmacopoeias, illustrated herbals, and botanical name indexes (materia medica).

Medical history landmarks in the collection include Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (1543), William Harvey’s Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis (1628), William Withering’s An Account of the Foxglove (1785), and Edward Jenner’s An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae (1798), as well as comprehensive holdings of the works of major medical figures such as Hippocrates, Galen, Paracelsus, Boerhaave, and Osler.

Early Manuscripts and Incunabula

NLM historical collections house a large collection of archives and manuscripts related the history of medicine. Most of the archival and manuscript material dates from the 17th century; however, the Library owns about 200 pre-1601 Western and Islamic manuscripts. The oldest item in the Library is an Arabic manuscript on gastrointestinal diseases from al-Razi's The Comprehensive Book on Medicine (Kitab al-Hawi fi al-tibb) dated 1094.

Incunabula or "cradle-books" as rare-book librarians sometimes call these volumes, are books printed in Europe using movable metal type from its invention in about 1455 until 1500. In Latin, "incunabula" means "swaddling clothes" or "cradle" and rare book librarians and historians have long used the term to refer to these books from the infancy of printing. Of the Library's 580 incunabula, about 70 of them are illustrated with woodcuts, many of them considered to be some of the greatest printed artwork of the age.

History of the Rare Books & Journals Collection

NLM historical collections trace their beginnings to 1818. In that year Dr. Joseph Lovell, the first Surgeon General of the Army, filled a few of his office shelves with books, journals, and pamphlets to serve as a reference collection for the Army surgeons under his command.

Learn more about the Story of NLM Historical Collections.

Using the Rare Books & Journals Collection

The collection is managed by the Rare Books and Early Manuscripts Program, which collects, preserves, and makes available to researchers and the public a wide array of printed monographs and serials and manuscript texts dating from the eleventh century.

The Library does not lend historical material in its original format. Depending on the material and restrictions access options include: viewing on site in the Reading Room, borrowing via interlibrary loan with a qualifying institution, or requesting digitization.

For reference support and more information about how to access Rare Books & Journals explore the Research Tools section.

To discuss the collection in detail contact the NLM Support Center.


Rare Books & Early Manuscripts Program

Laura Hartman, Head (Acting)


National Library of Medicine
Building 38, Room 1E-21
8600 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, Maryland 20894-3819

NLM Support Center

Last Reviewed: January 9, 2023