Looking Back to Look Ahead

Nina Matheson at her desk, an old desktop computer next to her

I recently prepared two big talks: the Matheson Lecture at the AAHSL/AAMC conference in Seattle on November 10, and the Plenary Keynote at the AMIA 2016 meeting in Chicago on November 15. The challenge—to be witty, insightful, visionary, knowledgeable, and inspirational—ABOUT DATA SCIENCE! To do so, I reached back to the words of one of the great women thinkers of our field, Nina Matheson.

I re-read Matheson and Cooper’s 1982 report on “Academic Information in the Academic Health Sciences Center” [J Med Educ 1982; 57 (10 II)]. Go back and read it again, and each time you encounter the phrase “information resource” think DATA! You will find that much of it is still relevant after 34 years.

For example:

  • The major barrier to change is often not a love of the status quo but the lack of a clear picture of where technology leads.


  • Some futurists underestimate what can be accomplished in one year and overestimate what can be accomplished in 10 years.


  • Without a vision of the goal and a concrete demonstration of feasibility, fruitful change is difficult to initiate.


  • Books will not disappear, but their uses will concentrate in those areas where their portability, relative low cost, and ease of production for stable information in incontestable.


  • As more and more information is available only to those with the financial means, fears grow about potentially disenfranchising those less affluent.

So how does this inform data science? It will take me a while to develop the same level of wisdom as Nina, so you can expect to see this list again, but here’s a start:

  • Data as an information substrate shares many features with bibliographic information—it’s just more granular—but the same challenges of how to harness, curate, store, and disseminate are still present.
  • Assuming a democratic perspective about health data—that it is potentially as useful to the scientist as the school teacher, to the clinician as the parent—will lead us to build utilities that avoid privileging the wealthy and professional over those less affluent or less educated.
  • Libraries, including our great National Library of Medicine, must ADD data to their complement of information resources, neither supplanting books and journals nor deeming them satisfactory.
  • Vision helps avoid the determinancies of the present and the over-promising of the future.

The NLM is in the process of establishing a strategic plan. Data science will form a key part of this strategic plan. Reflect on Nina’s words, and let me know what guidance they impart to you!

More Information
Nina Matheson Oral History (NLM Lister Hill Center, 2005): Abstract | Full transcript

2 thoughts on “Looking Back to Look Ahead

  1. Indeed — Nina’s work has truly been transformative. I had the great good fortune to spend time with her during my associate year at NLM (83/84). I remember in particular one afternoon that we spent talking about the report. I went into her office that day thinking it was about technology; I came out a couple of hours later understanding that it was about people — how they work, how they interact with each other and how technology, properly deployed, can make them more effective. But taking advantage of the technology requires working effectively with people — something librarians can be very good at! Also worth re-reading is Nina’s Doe lecture from 1995 — The Idea of the Library in the 21st Century https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC225988/ .

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