The future of scientific communication and health information is shining brightly these days. New models of communication—videos and data sets and Jupyter Notebooks, to name a few—bring the excitement of discovery, the potential of in-the-moment reproducibility, and an accelerated pace to scholarly discourse.
But what is NLM’s role in an era of memes, data warehouses, and the cloud?
To look forward, we must first look back.
NLM’s original legislative mandate emerged when paper was the dominant medium for scientific communication and articles the primary unit of scientific contribution. The Library’s work reflected that.
Long a physical repository of “library materials pertinent to medicine,” NLM acquired and organized stacks and stacks (and stacks!) of books, journals, manuscripts, dissertations, pamphlets, prints, and photographs. We published the Indexus Medicus and Index-Catalogue. Though not a lending library per se, we made our materials available through an on-site reading room, interlibrary loan, and judicious sharing with peer institutions. And we helped people find what they need within the collection through reference and research assistance.
But anyone who has used the Library in the last 50-plus years knows that each of those functions has evolved to increasingly leverage technological advances. The move to electronic journals has left us with little to purchase and even less to store. PubMed provides an online index to the medical literature. Digitized content has simplified access, streamlined interlibrary loan, and given people the ability to help themselves.
But for all these advancements, the human role remains essential.
After all, collections don’t materialize on their own. They are the result of systematic and informed choices by Library staff guided by the members of the Literature Selection Technical Review Committee and by policy.
Collections don’t describe and organize themselves. Staff in our indexing and cataloging branches add their human expertise to automated strategies to make the literature discoverable.
Collections don’t share themselves. While citation records let people know what we have, our outreach and reference staff get word out about the Library’s collections and services through a range of strategies and interactions, building awareness, research skills, and information literacy.
Collectively, that human role is becoming more active, more engaging, more purposeful, making NLM less a custodian and more a curator of health information. As scientific communication changes and evolves—and its associated content and data explode in size and multiply in demand—I expect that curatorial responsibility to grow, potentially encompassing responsibilities such as establishing quality criteria and tracking data’s provenance and versioning.
Strictly speaking, the collection will not give way, but by becoming less physical, less tangible, it will morph into a commitment—to findability, to accessibility, to usefulness.
In essence, we will shift our focus to ensuring those “library materials pertinent to medicine” remain discoverable and available in perpetuity and across the miles, whether they’re physically within these walls or not, whether they’re physical things or not. In that way, we’ll help ensure that the new models of communication deliver on their promise to accelerate scientific discovery and improve health.