Decades Later, Bioethics Research Library Still Going Strong

View from the upstairs section of the Bioethics Research Library.

The Bioethics Research Library (BRL) began in 1973 as a shelf full of books to assist the first faculty members of the newly-created Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Institute of Ethics. From the beginning it was revolutionary in helping establish the resources for the cross-disciplinary field of bioethics.

The library soon gained national recognition. In 1974, the National Library of Medicine awarded the library a grant for its Bioethics Information Retrieval Project. A decade later, they awarded the library another grant to establish it as the National Reference Center for Bioethics Literature. This appointment to a national stage elevated the library’s platform and directly led to the bibliographers at the KIE and the BRL developing the bioethics subset that now runs in PubMed. The staff developed the database and the fields so that fine grained and complex references could be provided to scholars, researchers, physicians, policy makers, and students. 

The library also became connected to the growing field of human genetic research; in 1994, it was awarded a grant from the National Center for Human Genome Research to establish the National Information Resource on Ethics & Human Genetics.

In 2010, with the NLM grant ending, the National Reference Center for Bioethics Literature transitioned to Georgetown University’s Bioethics Research Library. It is now fully integrated with all the Georgetown University libraries, and listed under “Libraries & Spaces.”

The Bioethics Research Library.

Today the BRL’s collection includes more than 100,000 books, journals, archival materials and digital objects to peruse. There are works spanning classical thought to contemporary and emerging issues, including the ethics of health care, biomedical research, biotechnology, and the environment. There are rare and unpublished works, and ephemeral, hard-to-find gray literature.

All of this makes the BRL a place where researchers come to discover the full range of cultural, historical, legal, medical, philosophical, political, religious, and scientific perspectives on bioethics.

“Bioethics literature is now more widely available than it was before — bioethics is now included in buying plans for libraries, whereas at one point it wasn’t,” said Roxie France-Nuriddin, Reference and Program Specialist at the BRL.

“But the fact that we keep abreast of emerging topics in bioethics, combined with the expertise that comes from being part of The Kennedy Institute of Ethics, makes the library extremely unique.”

The BRL serves thousands of patrons a year, including a heavy Georgetown student population that uses the quiet and beautiful space for studying. Anyone in the Georgetown community can use the physical space on the first floor of Georgetown’s Healy Hall. The library is also open to anyone in the Washington Research Libraries Consortium.

How Visiting Researchers Use the Library

Given its origins as one of the first bioethics libraries in the world, the BRL is well-known in the bioethics community — and serves a global audience of independent researchers, people attending the KIE’s Intensive Bioethics Course, people from other colleges and universities, and clinicians. Through online reference requests, Ms. France-Nuriddin and Patty Martin, BRL’s Technical Services Manager, serve users from around the world who are studying bioethics. On the ground, Visiting Researchers through The Kennedy Institute of Ethics and the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics are guided and provided access to resources to expand and continue their bioethics-focused research.

“We have subject-matter expertise,” Ms. France-Nuriddin said. “We help people define their subjects using bioethics language, and using terminologies in a language that is searchable. Researchers may know what they want to identify, but they may not be using the terms with a language that would actually deliver a search on the topic. We help them do that.”

Marta Dias Barcelos, who has been a Visiting Researcher at the KIE since Fall 2016, recently completed her Ph.D. dissertation while using the library.“Because I was interested in the study of principlism,” an applied ethics approach to the examination of moral dilemmas, “I was able to find those texts at the BRL,” Ms. Dias Barcelos said. It helped that KIE scholars Dr. Tom Beauchamp and Dr. James F. Childress had established principlism while at the KIE.

“With the help of Patty and Roxie, I used the library’s resources intensively to find historical documents and papers on the methodology of bioethics.” 

Dr. Shawneequa Callier, another Visiting Researcher who came back in Fall 2019 after having already pursued research at the BRL in Fall 2014, said she “was guided to methods of searches and book resources that helped me conduct my research efficiently,” adding, “The BRL is one of the very few places comprised of librarians who are experts in bioethics.”

Now an Associate Professor in Clinical Research and Leadership at George Washington University, Dr. Callier noted that the opportunity to engage on a regular basis with staff and faculty who have an interest and expertise in bioethics was invaluable. 

Dr. Marie Nicolini, an M.D. who is currently working on her Ph.D. while also serving as a NIH Postdoctoral Fellow, was a Visiting Researcher at the KIE for a full year from Fall 2017 to Summer 2018. She found that one of the most helpful insights for her was being taught to “pick up the conversation” of key papers in the bioethics field so that her research could tread new ground.

“It saves you a lot of time when you start working on a new topic,” she said. 

‘Some People Will Want To See Everything’

To Ms. Martin, what makes the BRL great is the personal attention and problem-solving that she and Ms. France-Nuriddin can offer researchers.

“Where I come in is finding the access. Once they have the citations, they say, ‘I need this and this and this.’ And if they need something that I can’t find within our local collection, we can order a copy. I always tell them that we’re open to doing that. And I solicit recommendations from them,” she said. These interactions can fuel new avenues for expanding the collections of the BRL, creating a positive feedback loop between the research and the researcher.   

“Some people want something very targeted,” said Ms. France-Nuriddin. “And some people will want to see everything.”

The BRL’s staff continue to dedicate time to help researchers and maintain and expand the resources that started on one small shelf 47 years ago.