Big Shoes to Fill

black men's dress shoes

Last week I attended the Medical Library Association Annual Meeting in Seattle, where I gave the Joseph Leiter Lecture, one of the most prestigious named lectures in the medical library community.

Joe Leiter served as the National Library of Medicine’s first Associate Director for Library Operations from 1965 through 1983.  Joe, as he preferred to be called, was—like me—not a librarian. A biochemist by training, he came to the NLM from the National Cancer Institute, where he was chief of NCI’s Cancer Chemotherapy Service Center, investigated environmental carcinogens and developed drug therapies for cancer.

Automation, the promise of information systems, and the chance to expand private-public partnerships lured Joe to the NLM under Director Marty Cummings.  Joe was credited with developing MEDLINE (teaming up with the late Davis McCarn) and DOCLINE, expanding the Regional Medical Libraries, rejuvenating the NLM Associate Program, introducing contracts to boost library services, and increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the training offered on NLM’s specialized databases. Through it all Joe never lost sight of the library’s end users, appraising every investment, every new initiative, and every advance in terms of how it would meet the needs of health science librarians and the people they served.

A man of amazing energies and intellectual generosity, Joe single-handedly inspired, cajoled, and in some cases badgered NLM staff to operate at the top of their game. Ever the passionate advocate, he also worked to advance women and minorities in the profession. As former Associate Director for Library Operations Sheldon Kotzin noted, Joe “never wavered in his commitment to the principles of equal opportunity.”

As Joe approached retirement he endowed a lectureship to be given annually: every odd year at the MLA meeting; on the even years, at or near NLM.

Many notable people have delivered the Leiter Lecture, among them Nobel Prize winner Joshua Lederberg; renowned heart surgeon Michael DeBakey; Tony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and Francis Collins, NIH Director and a pioneering geneticist who led the effort to map the human genome.

I had big shoes to fill.

I listened to some of the earlier lectures and thought of the innovations portended by those visions. The future—or futures—my predecessors envisioned is the present we are living now. Their stories became our stories, and I hope the story I contributed will blossom into a shared vision of how the National Library of Medicine can and will serve society—as the NIH hub for data science, and as a platform for discovery and a pathway to engagement in the development and expansion of data-powered health.

It’s a vision that ultimately holds the individual at the center and imagines a future I like to think Joe Leiter would support.

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