MeSH’s 50th Anniversary

This afternoon I watched the 5oth Anniversary Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) Event videocast. And yes, I personally found it interesting. If you are at all interested in matters vocabulary, you can watch the lecture yourself on the NIH website within a few days. Dr. Robert Braude reviewed the history of this medical vocabulary within its historical context. As a more mature person myself, I enjoyed Dr. Braude’s “unofficial” title for the lecture: “MeSH at 50: Should It Join AARP?”

I took some notes but Dr. Braude presented so much information that I couldn’t really keep up. And he had no audiovisuals to slow him down. I do wish that they would post a bibliography of the resources that he mentioned. I caught most but not all of them. I am sure most of them are listed here in this MeSH bibliography. Just for fun, NLM’s History of Medicine Division has posted the original 1960 edition of Medical Subject Headings: Main headings, Subheadings, and Cross references used in the Index Medicus and the National Library of Medicine Catalog. The preface notes that “The adoption of a single subject authority list for books and periodical articles is a departure from traditional practice.” I mentioned this later in the afternoon to our head of cataloging and metadata and this was as surprising to her as it was to me. The usefulness of a single vocabulary seems so obvious! I had no idea that MeSH was so controversial. One of the justifications for a carefully developed single medical vocabulary was its superiority over article derived terms in retrieving medical information. This remains a topic of discussion at MPOW. Here in the reference office we still have frequent discussions about whether it is preferable to teach health sciences students in the Google generation subject term searching rather than keyword searching. I am a staunch defender of the power of subject searching.

The most interesting part of the lecture were Dr. Braude’s personal reflections. He noted that as a young librarian the most valuable part of his MEDLARS training at NLM were the relationships that he developed. He spoke of time spent with many of the NLM greats. Imagine coffee breaks with Stan Jablonski! He noted that in those early days of the MEDLARS system searches were input using keypunch cards (I remember using those!) and search results were returned IN A FEW DAYS. How things have changed!