Head Nurse of the Library?

How a nurse’s way of knowing helps me do my job.

Illustration of interlocking gears shows the interdependence of different elements of health care

Many of you know I am a nurse. I began my career with a BSN from the University of Delaware (1975) and then completed an MSN at the University of Pennsylvania (1979). I also hold a license as a registered nurse.

I think of myself as a psychiatric nurse, although I spent a few years in the mid-1970s on the 3-to-11 shift in a busy surgical shock-trauma ICU. I have also served on the faculty of nursing at Case Western Reserve and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It helps to understand nursing to see why being a nurse is such a great asset in my role as director of the National Library of Medicine.

To me nursing is fundamentally the diagnosis and treatment of the human response to disease, disability, and developmental challenges.

Note that phrase “human response,” i.e., how people react to the challenges in their lives.

Nurses focus on the human response, while the biomedical knowledge we have, like pathology or anatomy, helps us understand what a person is coping with and what kinds of complementary or supplementary supports are needed.

As noted nurse and author Virginia Henderson observed, nurses must actively engage with the patient to help him or her perform “those activities contributing to health or its recovery (or to a peaceful death) as he [or she] would do unaided had he [or she] the necessary strength, will or knowledge,” with independence from the nurse the common goal.

Nursing addresses the whole person and helps that person live to the fullest extent.

Along the way, nurses come to know people differently than the other clinical disciplines. And that knowledge, I’ve discovered, helps me as Library Director.

It affords me special insight into the public patrons who use our services. I can imagine a young mother using MedlinePlus in the middle of the night to figure out how to comfort a feverish child. I can anticipate the information needed by someone with a late-stage cancer diagnosis and recognize the need to complement journal articles on treatment options with literature on comfort measures and death with dignity. And I can appreciate the challenges of navigating the health care environment, from its specialized vocabulary to its unique culture.

A nurse’s way of knowing helps me set policies for integrating into the Library’s formal standards and language systems the terminologies that address the social and behavioral domains of health. Nurses live in those domains, as much if not more than the technical or scientific.

Perhaps most importantly, my experience as a nurse has taught me that each person has his or her own strengths, and that the Library’s resources should build upon those strengths to help the person make healthful choices, not just explain deficits.

But the benefits of being a nurse and a library director do not run only one way. Directing a library also lets me fulfill my nursing role, as I help others achieve the highest level of wellness possible.

As NLM director, I advocate for those in need, ensuring the literature is sufficiently inclusive. I improve patient care by guiding the fields of data science and biomedical informatics toward a future where professionals and patients interact to achieve care goals. And I model for younger nurses a career path that engages all that I am as a nurse while collaborating meaningfully across disciplines.

Being a nurse is not a job requirement for directing the National Library of Medicine, but it certainly is an asset. Advanced education as a health professional gives me an appreciation for how complex health care is and how important it is to engage all disciplines toward addressing that complexity. Engaging patients as partners in care motivates me to build resources that foster full participation of people in health. And experience as a team player in psychiatric services enables me to join with my colleagues from library science, information and computer science, linguistics, medicine,  and other disciplines to make the NLM the foundation of the future of health and discovery.

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

4 thoughts on “Head Nurse of the Library?”

  1. I was privileged to work with Miss Virginia Henderson while at Yale and be footnoted in her most important book, Principles and Practice of Nursing, 6th edition. Your readers might be interested in knowing Miss Henderson accumulated, notated and indexed nursing literature written in English between 1900 and 1970 prior to writing the last edition of her 1978 book, a true evidence based text. Among her many awards were several she cherished from library associations. Dr. Brennan, another great nurse I have been privileged to work with at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, Case Western Reserve University, is on track to lead the NLM in an electronic era where she advocates for people as well as professionals.

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    1. Hi Ed,
      Glad to come across your response here – though not surprised that you add information of interest to readers.
      I am working at New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital as the Health Librarian where I run the Family Resource Center and where everything I have done in my nursing career has been immensely useful. The NLM has been my mainstay for continuing education. Their courses are so well done..
      I’m now working towards Level II Consumer Health Specialist. Life is good! Hope the same for you.
      Best,
      Barbara

      Like

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