Digital Collections of Public Health History

Cataloging and presenting public health history comes with its own challenges. For example, there are local, state, federal and international scopes; digitization of ancient, rare, and various formats (i.e., videos requires migration); funding limitations; strategic implementation of a collection from a larger body; and sustainability and management concerns. This review covers four sites, each dedicated to a particular scope within the history of public health.

North Carolina History of Health Digital Collection

The landing page states this collection consists of books, journals, reports, bulletins, minutes, proceedings, and histories [of significance to North Carolina] covering topics in medicine, public health, dentistry, pharmacy, and nursing, dating from 1849 to the present.”

Of the collections surveyed, this one provides the most detailed metadata. A record from the North Carolina Board of Health [1879-1908] and offers the ability to manipulate the object both physically (zoom and rotate) as well as intellectually through tagging. The collection blends controlled vocabulary and folksonomy via social tagging to allow users to form ad hoc communities or to personalize their classifications. Due to the specific niche of this collection I recommend a companion blog to assist users in contextualizing the records and objects.

U.S. National Library of Medicine Digital Collections

According to the NLM site, “Digital Collections is the National Library of Medicine’s free online resource of biomedical books and videos. All of the content in Digital Collections is freely available worldwide and, unless otherwise indicated, in the public domain.”

Overall, the NLM Digital Collections offer impressive technical, sophisticated capabilities and an almost alienating level of high-level transparency in its technical specifications, but should be called a repository instead of a digital collection. The only deficiency is that lack of context and textual narrative within each collection.

Once a user selects a subject, such as “World War 1, 1914-1918”, 502 items return in the search results. I tested out a few of the digitized texts and videos, and they are high quality but there is not the usability and user-friendliness that I’ve seen in other collections. A PubMed search of citations reveals that the NLM Digital Collections are featured in many journals, including The American Surgeon, Medical History and Cognitive & Behavioral Neurology, and very little in news coverage and grey literature. This makes me think that it is developed and maintained for practitioners and academics as opposed to the general public.

New York Academy of Medicine Digital Collections

The NYAM Digital Collections is a product of digitized rare books and ephemera relating to public health history, along with a collection of recent podcasts and recordings on the subject.

The NYAM Digital Collection is an odd character in that it lacks a standard and seamless interface and does not define its user base. Although the front-end display appears modern, the content of the collections is garbled and lacks uniformity and context. For example, “The Resurrectionists” contains an overview and introduction as well as the process for digitization but they do not replicate this format and layout in the other collections. The NYAM podcasts link to a separate source site and do not contain any search features or metadata schematic, as does the Carte de Visite Collection. The users of the collection must know how to navigate the external and internal sites to get the information they are looking for – it would be helpful to offer finding aids or searching guides for these users.

Contagion: Historical View of Diseases and Epidemics

Harvard University’s collection contains significant elaboration and contextualization of 9 significant epidemics with links to over half a million pages of related material.

I found this Collection’s strength in its ability to contextualize its holdings, through its standardization of metadata and by its self-contained and self-referring interface. There is a seamless delivery of relevant holdings from ten repositories – luckily, Harvard hosts all ten – and so this allows for this collection to have some control and anticipation with the participating sources.

From a client’s perspective, I would like to see more features and organization schemas gearing toward temporal usability; the left-handed menu is in achronological order, the collections do not denote the date of its last update and I would like to know if there are special services to users. The collection is often linked from health sciences libraries and has been reviewed and cited within journal articles appearing in  Nursing History Review, The Journal of American History, The Journal of Medical Microbiology and The Journal of Electronic Resources in the Medical Libraries, among others.


In this evaluation, the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM), the University of North Carolina, the National Library of Medicine (NLM), and Harvard University offer a variety of platforms and content, both front- and back-end, to show best practices of digital collections within this domain:

  1. The front-end should be self-contained or convey seamless transitions. The NYAM would benefit from invoking a standard platform to cull its results from the variety of repositories. Harvard does an excellent job of encouraging the user to explore and linger on the meticulously mapped sections.
  2. The collection should prepare to answer questions from users of novice to expert levels. The NLM offers technical backdrops and specification but little in user-centric guidance on how the collections are created, organized, and expressed. Harvard’s FAQs and service pages answer questions about usability, simple search terms, and link out to digitization schemas.
  3. All content should be equally accessible through metadata. The NYAM does not offer a comprehensive search feature and this limits the ability for users to grasp the breadth and depth of the collection, especially since the records are images, texts, videos and podcasts. Alternatively, the NLM has not only uniformly standardized the videos and non-text of their items, they have also transcribed each video for easy searching.
  4. Detailed updates or a blog goes a long way. One of the things that would enhance the management and curation of the collections is either a blog outlining updates to the collections, or a date stamp at the bottom of each collection. Users would like to know what has changed, refined, or cleaned. It’s also a perfect way to add dynamism to the community of users. Blogs can also serve as an informal way to provide cohesion and a narrative to users.

Thank you to UNC-Chapel Hill Special Collections Librarian, Dawne Lucas, for her careful review and thoughtful feedback.
Image courtesy of The New York Public Library.

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