Information Along the Underground Railroad

Silhouette of a man and child holding hands as they walk away from the camera along a receding set of railroad tracks

A couple years ago, I wrote about how the paintings in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series inspired me to think about how the National Library of Medicine gets information to people on the move—people displaced by violence, natural disasters, or economic crises. I felt a similar stirring after viewing the Jeanine Michna-Bales exhibition Photographs of the Underground Railroad at the Phillips Collection last month.

The deep indigo and shadowy black of Michna-Bales’ photographs stand in stark contrast to the oranges, greens, and yellows of Lawrence’s paintings, which occupy a room across the hall at the Phillips, but both have things to tell me.

Michna-Bales’ collection of nighttime photographs immediately pulled me in, helping me sense a whisper of the fear and anxiety escaping slaves might have felt as they slogged their way north toward freedom. The dark, shadowed images required me to peer in closely to detect a house or barn that might have provided a safe place to hide—or concealed danger. The Drinking Gourd constellation, isolated in the night sky, guided the travelers north along dirt roads and winding rivers, while cypress swamps, mangroves, and thick vegetation, barely perceptible in the moonlight, slowed passage.

It’s a chilling piece of history brought to life through the photographer’s lens, but as the exhibition curator underscored, slavery still exists today. More than 20 million people are enslaved around the world.  More than 50% are women; 25% are children under the age of 18. These staggering figures cry out for redress.

What can NLM do to help those working to combat this crisis or treat its victims?

We provide information to those on the front lines.

The Library’s literature can help primary care physicians and emergency room staff identify patients at risk and potentially rescue victims of human trafficking. It can help clinicians deliver health care that is both trauma-informed and culturally sensitive, attuned to victims’ needs and backgrounds. It can give educators ways to train health professionals to recognize and help victims, offer policy makers strategies to reduce human trafficking, and encourage the global health community to investigate the social and economic elements that drive such exploitation. The Library also has articles on human trafficking for the horrific purpose of organ removal and others on the relationship between human trafficking and stress-related illnesses and drug use among survivors.

It’s a harrowing collection but a necessary one, if we are to combat this crisis.

To further help those who are fighting this fight, PubMed lists articles similar to the ones initially found, helping to shape a coherent picture of the clinical challenges, health services, and public policies that can counteract this crime or mitigate its effects. We also provide the free full text of publicly funded research on this topic.

We may be able to do even more in the future. I see opportunities to tailor the health information we provide to the personal culture, worries, and recent experiences of the person searching. It’s a bold vision, but reaching the most vulnerable makes it worth the effort.


If you think someone may be a victim of human trafficking, call or encourage them to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888 for help, resources, and information. You may also text 233733.

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

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