(Re)Engineering the National Library of Medicine Building

Guest post by Dianne Babski, Associate Director for Library Operations and Patrick Casey, NLM Building Engineer

NLM, the largest biomedical library in the world, is housed in Buildings 38 and 38A on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland. As we head into our third century of existence, we are guided by our ten year NLM Strategic Plan, which outlines a vision for NLM as a platform for biomedical discovery and data-powered health, integrating streams of complex and interconnected research outputs that can be readily translated into scientific insights, clinical care, public health practices, and personal wellness.

An important step in realizing this future is to create a physical environment to better position NLM to fulfill the goals of its strategic plan. In Fall 2017, we engaged with NIH facilities management, architects, and historic preservation specialists to explore ways to better utilize our space, support research, and provide a progressive and collaborative work environment. Through an iterative and cooperative process, including engagement with and feedback from our many stakeholders, the needs expressed became the drivers for the recommendations and plans made for the proposed future of NLM.

Little did we know when we embarked on this extensive renovation that the project would take a twist – a global pandemic. In some ways, the pandemic provided an opportunity to recognize the extent of work that could still continue with many staff working remotely.

As we enter the first phase of the renovation project, that involves the Mezzanine level and 1st floor in Building 38, I thought it would be helpful to learn more about the project from the perspective of the person overseeing it – Patrick Casey, NLM’s building engineer. I had an opportunity to sit down with Patrick to ask some questions and get his thoughts on the project.


What have you found most interesting about the NLM renovation compared to other projects you’ve worked on?

Figure 1: The exterior view of the National Library of Medicine and Lister Hill Center.

NLM has a lot more people and building space than I would have assumed. The main building space (Building 38) is unique given its historical context and details. It was built in a very different era, and this renovation project is attempting to reutilize the space in a more modern way.

The main building was built in the 1950s in a construction fashion that is not done anymore, and it’s a building constructed using a lot of concrete. I’ve heard many stories about the construction of the building, one of which is that it was built as a bomb shelter to enable it to withstand a bomb attack to protect the collections.

What makes the NLM building renovation necessary and distinctive?

Figure 2: NLM’s Main Reading Room (before renovations).

This renovation is necessary to make better use of existing space, create new space for growing research programs, ensure the integrity of NLM’s collections, and support the future work of NLM. The breadth of the project is a treat to work on because there is never a shortage of things to do.

All of the various projects at NLM have unique characteristics. NLM facilities house the historical collections, a 24-hour data center, and a 10-story administrative facility supported by several stories below ground.

While the main building was built in the 1950s, Building 38A was added in the 1970s. While newer than the original Library building, Building 38A is also showing its age and “time stamp” from that era of building design.

What have you had to learn as part of this project?

Figure 3: NLM’s Main Reading Room (during renovations).

This is NLM’s first major renovation in 50 years, and we’ve had to learn a lot about some of the interesting challenges that exist with the building, including unique climate control concerns that need to be considered and addressed—especially on levels where historical collections are stored.

The project management process is constantly keeping us on our toes because there are a lot of things to plan. We do not typically have much down time.

What are you most excited to see at the end of the renovation?

I look forward to seeing how the new renovation does the building justice in terms of maintaining its unique qualities while providing staff with a modernized, 21st century work environment to facilitate collaboration, and creating a welcoming environment for visitors and patrons. I am excited to see the spaces open and ready for people to use and move into. That said, work will continue after this major renovation project is complete. Building system upgrades needed to improve environmental conditions will continue to be addressed. Tackling these improvements will introduce its own set of challenges, and I look forward to it.


We are very lucky to have an engineer on staff to help NLM oversee these major renovations, keep us informed of what’s going on, and help us continue to modernize and improve our work areas as we build for the vision of our future!

We would love to hear your tips or lessons learned if you went through renovations!

Ms. Babski is responsible for overall management of one of NLM’s largest divisions with more than 450 staff who provide health information services to a global audience of health care professionals, researchers, administrators, students, historians, patients, and the public

Mr. Casey is the NLM Building Engineer. He has worked for the federal government for nearly 19 years. Prior to working at NLM, he worked in various capacities at the Navy and Marine Corps working in facilities renovation and construction programs