Digital Resources Session Draws Sold Out Crowd

Representatives of Medical Heritage Library (MHL) collaborating institutions presented a lunchtime session at the American Association for the History of Medicine annual meeting on Saturday, April 30th.

Michael North, National Library of Medicine (NLM), introduced the NLM’s improved Directory of History of Medicine Collections ( The directory includes 200 repositories globally and is now searchable by subject and location. It is possible to refine searches, adding subjects or locations to assist users in prioritizing repositories to visit. He also demonstrated a new NLM resource, Digital Collections (, a repository for preservation and access to historical biomedical materials. Michael discussed one type of digital collection, 28 digitized films issued by the military during WWII, mostly related to hygiene, that have been transcribed so are fully searchable and accessible.

Stephen Novak, Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library, Columbia University, discussed Archive Grid (, a portal to find archival collections held by thousands of repositories globally. Search results can be sorted by location, relevance, and repository. Links to finding aids appear in search results. Stephen noted that the NLM’s Finding Aids Consortium ( provides access to a narrower—and highly relevant—body of finding aids drawn from twelve major history of medicine libraries.

Jack Eckert, Countway Library, discussed finding digitized books. In addition to commercial sources, there are a number of freely available collections of digitized books in the history of medicine. BASE (Bielefeld Academic Search Engine) ( offers open access web resources from 1700 repositories around the world.  HATHI Trust ( provides access to  8.6 million volumes with full text search; while only 27% of these are in the public domain, many more can be used for educational and research purposes. Google Books ( has an unfortunate user interface and scanning quality issues. It does provide deep searching across a wide variety of materials. Specialized sources include the Bibliothèque numérique Medica – Histoire de la santé  at BIU Santé, Paris (, which covers science and medicine, and Taubman Medical Library’s Homeopathy Collection ( The Medical Heritage Library ( offers 9,000 medical rare books currently, with more coming. The online book reader provides tabbed access to search terms and a number of other functions. Books can be downloaded in a variety of formats.

Lori Jahnke, College of Physicians of Philadelphia, discussed the next steps for the MHL. In addition to digitizing new material, we are turning our attention to aggregating existing content and to developing an access environment that will facilitate cross-disciplinary study and digital scholarship in the history of medicine. Among our goals is linking primary sources with secondary literature, image repositories, film, and datasets. We plan to draw upon tools such as the Unified Medical Language System to improve the richness of content description, which will enable concept mapping as part of a more efficient discovery process. As the wealth of historical resources on the web grows so must our efforts in creating a coherent  access environment that supports scholarly needs.

Jeremy Greene, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University, a member of the MHL’s scholarly advisory committee, opened the audience discussion by asking, how are we using digital resources, what do we need in terms of sources and tools, and how should the availability of these materials influence the training of new scholars? He described several ways in which digital sources are commonly employed: as a way to locate resources that are remote to the user, which are then printed; a convenient format to carry and use digital objects, which are downloaded, read, and annotated on the user’s computer; and as sources for objects that are downloaded then combined in single documents or databases for more powerful search and manipulation. These methods provide important efficiencies for scholars, but don’t use technology to extend the effectiveness of the scholar’s work. How can we get to the next level?

Audience members responded to the presentations and comments with a number of ideas about how digital resources and tools could be more useful. Some of these include:

– Projects tend to follow the subject strengths of collections. Scholars also want to cross-reference such holdings with materials in other formats and subjects.

– History of medicine should be presented in relation to social history, cultural history, and related fields.

– Projects need to be aware of other digital projects such as those undertaken by Google and others, leverage those projects, and demonstrate their value.

– Scholars need meta-tools for searching—not more silos. Will MHL bring materials together via a search tool?

– We need to bring the museum into the library – add artifacts and 3-D images to text repositories under single search tools.

– Lack of annotation is an obstacle for scholarly use of digital objects; what tools are available to support this activity?

– Who decides what gets digitized? Where do the resources come from?

– Scholars are accustomed to organizing paper files; what is the best way to organize the digital materials we download? What software can support organization?

We will be following up on the questions and ideas raised by participants. The MHL is committed to ongoing scholarly engagement to improve the library’s ability to support the work of students and scholars.

Searching the MHL (I)

There are several different ways you can access titles in the Medical Heritage Library through our Internet Archive website.

Our homepage features a variety of search functions: you can use the general Internet Archive search at the top of the page or you can browse the MHL’s collection by subject, author, or title.

If you choose to browse through the collection, you can either browse the whole collection, at once or you can go through by author, title, or subject. The subject browse shows a list of descriptive terms and the number of volumes that uses each term:

This list changes and updates constantly as volumes are added to our library and is always worth checking out to see what new and unusual topics we’re covering. It can also be helpful if you know what topic you want but do not have a specific title in mind. Click any topic link and you’ll get a list of the titles in that topic. You can click into any title that catches your eye or follow further keywords from titles with more than one.

For additional tips on searching the MHL, check out our MHL @ Internet Archive page and as always, for more from the Medical Heritage Library, please visit our full collection!

MHL Annual Progress Report

No, really, it's been a good year. Tractatus perutilis et completus de fractura cranei by Jacopo Berengario da Carpi, 1535. Digitized for the Medical Heritage LIbrary from the collections of the Countway Library of Medicine.

Over the past twelve months, the MHL has made progress on a number of fronts. As of this writing, 9,245 monographs have been uploaded to the Internet Archive (IA); nearly 5,000 more have been digitized and are awaiting processing and deposit.  Subject areas include general public health topics, psychiatry, popular medicine, medical directories, forensic medicine, and therapeutics, as well as surgery, anatomy, and physiology.  The ‘browse list’ of topics on the MHL’s IA homepage demonstrates the breadth of the history of medicine– it lists subjects from ‘Abattoirs’ to ‘Zulu War, 1879.’

MHL content has generated 187,000 downloads since the first deposit in early 2010. The single most downloaded book (currently at 702 downloads) is volume 2 of Per il XXV Anno Dell’Insegnamento Chirurgico di Francesco Durante nell’Università di Roma. 28 Febbraio 1898, edited by Roberto Alessandri (if the name Francesco Durante doesn’t ring a bell, see the MHL blog.

For more on our annual progress report, which will appear in the ALHHS Watermark, see: Announcements and Articles.

Your thoughts on any aspect of the MHL would be gratefully received; please email or leave a comment on our website or Facebook page.

Digital Highlights: The Several Ways of Preserving Dead Bodies

In 1705, Thomas Greenhill, surgeon, published Nekpokedeia: or, the Art of Embalming in London. Greenhill’s subtitle is even more informative: Wherein is Shown the Right [sic] of Burial, and Funeral Ceremonies, Especially That of Preserving Bodies After the Egyptian Method. And it goes on from there — there are a full 44 pages of front matter, including a poem, dedication to Greenhill’s patron, the Earl of Pembroke, and a list of subscribers and contributors to the volume, before Greenhill starts his discussion.

Fold-out frontispiece from Nekpokedeia.

Greenhill’s discussion of funerary customs and rites wanders in a fascinating manner from Biblical history to ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, through modern times. He brings up issues that are probably of less concern to our present-day morticians and funeral home directors including the need to double or even triple-check that the body is dead before funeral rites are started.

In his opening chapters, Greenhill emphasizes that there are many reasons for burial or embalming: chief among them being respect for the corpse and the need to protect others from contamination due to the processes of putrefaction. Respect for the corpse, for Greenhill, does not necessitate the Western under-ground burial: he allows that traditions in other parts of the world, such as mummification or disposal through fire, have their roots in the community and may be acceptable methods of corpse disposal in their place.

His interest in “putrid air” marks Greenhill very much as a man of his time when it was thought that disease and ill-health could be spread through exposure to “bad air” which could be anything from the night air in the open country to the atmosphere around an open cesspit. It was not until the late 19th century that the idea of the infectious nature of “bad air” was conclusively challenged and, even then, the concept hung on well into the 20th century. The difficulty of making clear the difference between infectious matter being spread in the air and the air itself being somehow to blame for the infection was probably key in this confusion.

As always, for more from the Medical Heritage Library, please visit our full collection!

MHL Awarded NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant

The Medical Heritage Library (MHL) has received a Level-One Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. This grant will support planning activities among 10 institutions and a scholarly advisory committee to continue developing the MHL ( The project furthers the MHL’s mission to “provide the means by which readers and scholars across a multitude of disciplines can examine the interrelated nature of medicine and society, both to inform contemporary medicine and strengthen understanding of the world in which we live.” This groundbreaking partnership in the digital humanities will highlight unique research resources in the history of medicine held by these institutions and enhance their utility for research.

“At the most basic level of full-text searching, digitization enables scholarship that simply could not be performed otherwise,” says Scott H. Podolsky, M.D., Director of the Center for the History of Medicine, Countway Library, and Assistant Professor of Global Health and Social  Medicine, Harvard Medical School. “Using runs of historical journals that are fully digitized, for example, it is possible to study the development of randomized controlled trials by performing full-text searches for such terms as ‘alternate patient(s)’ or ‘alternate case(s).’ The possibilities for answering novel questions are seemingly endless, and limited chiefly by the texts that have been digitized, the metadata applied to them, and the accessibility of the resources to scholars. NEH support will help erase these limitations.”

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at:

CLIR 2011 Sponsors’ Symposium Features the Medical Heritage Library

The world of higher education at large continues to grapple with the changing needs of researchers brought about by emerging technologies. Although many of the technological solutions for building a more robust research infrastructure are within our grasp, the human side of this equation is unresolved. That is, we are still learning the productive ways in which to work together across professional and institutional boundaries. This was a focus of discussion at the 2011 Council on Libraries and Information Resources Sponsors’ Symposium in Arlington, VA—Collaborative Opportunities Amidst Economic Pressures. Lively discussion of the economic, institutional, and social factors that can facilitate or impede collaborative solutions filled much of the day.

My presentation, Whose Goals are They? Navigating Diverse Institutional Cultures and Shared Responsibility for Creating Digital Resources in the History of Medicine, focused on the history of the MHL project and how a diverse group of partners can support digital scholarship in the medical humanities. This presentation was part of a panel that included two other examples of successful collaborations:

  • “The Making of Hydra: Common Solutions for Common Problems” by Martha Sites, Associate University Librarian for Production and Technology Services, University of Virginia
  • “TextGrid: A Virtual Research Environment for the Humanities” by Heike Neuroth, Scientific Coodinator of TextGrid and Director of Research and Development, University Library of Goettingen.

Together these projects highlight three approaches to finding shared solutions for disciplinary or local issues. In the final session of the day Chuck Henry, CLIR President, divided us into groups and asked the provocative question: What is it about our policies, organizations, traditions, or practices that impedes collaboration? The list of responses ranged from resource and staffing constraints to the perhaps more challenging habits of culture and communication.

PowerPoint slides from each of the presentations are available here. CLIR will also post a summary of the afternoon session on their website with a blog or wiki to encourage wider discussion. Visit often and join in the conversation.

Lori M. Jahnke
S. Gordon Castigliano CLIR Fellow
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Institutional Digitization Survey Results

In November and December, 2010, the MHL asked repositories holding medical heritage materials to respond to a survey regarding their past experiences and future digitization plans. Summary analysis of survey results can be found here: MHL Institutional Digitization Survey.

The MHL will be pursuing additional information regarding digitization plans and practices. If your repository has not completed the survey and would like to participate, please contact:

How Digital Resources Can Support Your Scholarship or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Digital World

Photograph from "Making the Most of Life"

Photograph from "Making the Most of Life." Digitized for the Medical Heritage Library from the collections of the Columbia University Health Sciences Library.

Going to Philadelphia in April for AAHM?

If you’re attending the American Association for the History of Medicine annual meeting, join curators and reference librarians from leading academic medical libraries for lunch on Saturday. These subject specialists will discuss the digital resources, websites and databases, they consult when responding to research questions.  Among the sources under discussion will be the Medical Heritage Library.

This will also be an opportunity to learn about digital scholarship in the history of medicine itself and discuss the creative use of emerging resources. 

The lunch talk features:

Stephen Novak, Head, Archives and Special Collections, Columbia University Medical Center;

Michael North, Head of the Rare Books & Early Manuscripts Section in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine;

Jack Eckert, Public Services Librarian, Center for the History of Medicine, Countway Medical Library;

Lori Jahnke, S. Gordon Castigliano CLIR Fellow, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia;

Jeremy Greene, Assistant Professor of the History of Science, Harvard University.

For more information about the AAHM meeting program, look here. We hope to see you on April 30 at session L3: How Digital Resources Can Support Your Scholarship.

Find Making the Most of Life at View all our collections at

Open Knowledge Commons Founder Maura Marx Honored by Simmons GSLIS

The MHL partners are pleased to announce that Maura Marx, CEO of the Open Knowledge Commons (OKC), has been honored with the GSLIS Alumni Achievement Award, presented annually by the Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Award winners have “demonstrated excellence in a way that exceeds the boundaries of their current positions by achieving influence as an outstanding role model for library and information science professionals.”

Ms. Marx initiated the Boston Public Library’s digital services program. Through the OKC, she catalyzed the MHL’s digitization project, now starting its second year. Ms. Marx is currently a fellow at the Berkman Center of Harvard University where her current project, developing a dialog around a digital public library, is drawing national attention.

We are proud to be associated with Ms. Marx and OKC and look forward to the exciting years ahead!

From the Stacks: A Survivor of the Harvard Fire of 1764

Engraving of Richard Mead, 1754. Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.

Engraving of Richard Mead, 1754. Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.

The Center for the History of Medicine staff members report that as they review and examine the rare books in the Center’s holdings for inclusion in the Medical Heritage Library digitization project, surprising things continue to come to light:

Our copy of the 1708 second edition of A mechanical account of poisons in several essays, Richard Mead’s tract on vipers, tarantulas, and mad dogs, will soon be appearing in the MHL, but in looking through one of the copies of the fourth edition of 1745 we found the volume to be a presentation copy from its author.  The endpaper bears an inscription from William Shrimpton in 1748, stating “My Uncle Mead desir’d me to present this book to the College Library in New England,” with the addendum, “Forwarded by yr. humble serv’t, John Hunt, by desire of my uncle, Mr. William Shrimpton of London.”  Richard Mead (1673-1754) was physician to King George II of England, and the volume was probably commended to the care of Boston merchant, John Hunt (1715-1763), a graduate of Harvard College in 1734, whose mother was a Shrimpton.

Of possibly even greater interest, though, is the inscription on the volume’s Harvard bookplate, stating “This book belonged to the Library before the fire of Jan. 24, 1764.”  On that night, during a storm of snow and high wind, Harvard Hall, containing the College’s books and scientific apparatus, caught fire.  Over 5,000 volumes were destroyed, with only 404 surviving, the books being either on loan or recent donations not yet unpacked.  Many of those new acquisitions, which helped to rebuild the library, were gifts of Thomas Hollis (1720-1774), who also endowed Harvard’s oldest book acquisition fund.  His name and generosity are perpetuated through Harvard’s library catalog, HOLLIS (which also is an acronym for the Harvard OnLine Library Information System.)

To see an early edition of Richard Mead’s text along with other titles digitized for the Medical Heritage Library, see