How do I send an email?
This wasn’t an easy question in 1972.
Fortunately, you could have learned what to do by turning to page 6 of the newsletter we now call the NLM Technical Bulletin.
For 50 years, searchers and librarians have been relying on the NLM Technical Bulletin to find out about everything from changes to NLM products to solutions to perplexing search questions.
But it wasn’t all business.
In between the technical information, readers were treated to folksy news about blizzards, hand drawn graphics, the occasional poem, and even what could be considered a competitive advice column.
NLM in Focus spoke to current NLM Technical Bulletin editor Rex Robison and combed through back issues for a retrospective of this NLM staple.
Back in 1969, the Library’s collection of biomedical citations had been computerized in a system called MEDLARS, but searching MEDLARS required equipment and skills that were rare at the time.
NLM had created several MEDLARS stations around the country (later, the world). But in the beginning, when users submitted search requests, they had to wait several weeks for the results. To help the stations interact with Library staff and become more informed, the NLM Technical Bulletin was born.
Signed, sealed, delivered
Typed. Printed. Manually folded and stuffed in envelopes. Stamped. Dropped in the mailbox.
That’s how the newsletter was produced in 1969.
Many early issues focused on access telephone numbers, statistics, and schedules. They also covered tips and instructions for how to search NLM’s databases, request interlibrary loans, and perform technical procedures.
Sometimes they included a bit of local color. For a 1970 feature article on the Australian MEDLARS service, writer John Vaughn covered more than information about requests coming from everywhere from Argentina to New Zealand. He shared how he commuted past a nature reserve with signs that read, “Kangaroos next 2 miles.”
Other stories covered an experimental loan program for a collection of videocassettes and advice for buying a remote terminal.
“It seems like a lot of minutia and a lot of paper by today’s standards,” said Robison. “But of course there was no email or internet, so they apparently threw everything they thought anyone might want to know in this newsletter.”
Old school tech support
In an effort to make early issues as interactive as possible, readers were invited to provide solutions to technical problems.
The problems varied:
- If you worked in a patient care facility and the administrator wants to revive a defunct bioethics committee, how would you get recent information?
- Does zinc work in treating the common cold?
- What are the comparative costs and benefits of disposable vs. reusable diapers?
- What’s the role of the National Library of Medicine in the development of user-friendly computerized information retrieval systems?
Readers were advised, “There are no exact answers or absolutely correct strategies, only best approximations, just like real life. Good luck!”
The prize? Recognition in the NLM Technical Bulletin and bragging rights. What could be better?
What’s my line?
An ongoing focus of the NLM Technical Bulletin has been to deliver news about NLM’s many bibliographic databases. Newly minted medical librarians today know about MEDLINE, but the newsletter has covered lots of “lines” over the years. Consider OLDMEDLINE, SPACELINE, CHEMLINE, and HISTLINE. Or how about CATLINE, SERLINE, and AVLINE? There was also AIDSLINE, BIOETHICSLINE, DIRLINE, POPLINE, SDLINE, and DOCLINE. (In 1977, the NLM Technical Bulletin even merged with the TOXLINE Technical Bulletin.)
And then there was their coverage of the bathtub collection. (You can’t make this up!)
In 1996, the newsletter was mailed to about 12,000 people each month, which cost around $80,000 each year. The staff debated switching to an even smaller font, which would cut costs, but ultimately they decided to move online. Since many of the database updates were already online, the move seemed only natural—and smart. (Plus readers with reading glasses must have been relieved.)
Sharing good news
The editors of NLM Technical Bulletin have always been eager to pass along positive news such as the debuts of the Regional Medical Libraries (1971), GRATEFUL MED (1986), “MEDLINEplus” (1998), and ClinicalTrials.gov (2000). A special supplement celebrated 15 years of MEDLINE in 1986.
In June 1986, readers learned that training no longer required a MEDLARS access code. And in 1997—in case folks missed it on the evening news or in the newspaper—they got to see a photo of Vice President Al Gore demonstrating PubMed.
More recently the NLM Technical Bulletin also introduced MedlinePlus Connect (2010) and announced changes in MEDLINE and MeSH to support systematic reviews (2019).
Tried and True: The NLM Technical Bulletin
Originally called the MEDLARS/Technical Bulletin, there were a few name changes along the way, but in 1979 the NLM Technical Bulletin was established as the title and the name stuck. Sometimes it was a monthly, other times a bimonthly. In 1990, it gave birth to a new “less technical” newsletter playfully called Gratefully Yours for health professionals using GRATEFUL MED.
Check out the NLM Technical
Even as the NLM Technical Bulletin changed over the past 50 years and its readership grew, some things endure. Its main audience remains the “searcher and the librarian,” as conveyed in the first issue. It still shares technical information and news that may affect the readers’ operations. The newsletter is still written and organized by dedicated librarians who welcome comments and suggestions.
The NLM Technical Bulletin continues to be “your source for the latest searching information,” just as it has been throughout its history.
By Kathryn McKay, NLM in Focus editor