Imagine our future…and help make it happen

light dots against a blue background form a futuristic wave (concept: future)

After two years of crafting a Strategic Plan and laying the groundwork for implementing its recommendations, NLM is ready to take the next step into our future. We’ve had committees and conversations, councils and presentations, and heard the advice and reactions of NLM staff, stakeholders near and far, and the many, many people around the world who use our services every day.

Today in Bethesda (and across the internet) we held our fourth Town Hall meeting in which the entire NLM leadership team met with as many NLM staff as we could cram into the Lister Hill Center Auditorium or log in to the webcast site. We reviewed the status of the Strategic Plan’s implementation, updated progress on particular initiatives, and sketched an outline of where we’re headed next.

I had heard good things from staff and colleagues about how much we’re communicating our plans and progress, but I’d also heard a niggling concern. Yes, yes, people understand the steps we’re taking, how far we’ve come, and what happens next, but the broad vision still isn’t very clear to some. Maybe not even to me.

To address that, I tried to capture during today’s Town Hall what NLM might look like as we reach our third century less than 20 years from now.

Our journey began, as they often do, at the beginning, as a small but growing collection in the Surgeon General’s Office in 1836. Thanks to the work of John Shaw Billings, that first century can best be thought of as a time of collecting and cataloging, building and organizing the physical foundation of the Library and its holdings. Our second century saw massive technological change, which allowed us to automate more of our work, and Don Lindberg ensured we leveraged the global computer networks to connect our resources and communicate their value to the world. Now, as we look ahead, I expect our third century to focus on curating the many resources we hold or connect to, and combining these massive data stores and literature repositories into robust information webs that accelerate data-driven discovery.

But to what end?

Imagine a world in which NLM assures global access to current, accurate, and trustable information. Imagine a world where instantaneous, inexpensive access to analytical methods and visualization tools stimulates creative answers to yet-unasked questions. Imagine ubiquitous access to important, relevant data to characterize health problems and the human response to disease, disability, and development. But don’t stop there. The third century will not only bring about better, faster, available-everywhere access to health information; it will also deliver integrated content able to elucidate the state and context of health.

The NLM of the future will build pathways between and among its books, articles, and data. It will suggest articles related to the one being sought and will put into the researcher’s hands advanced visualization and literature synthesis tools that match the speed of information presentation to the speed of human cognition. Interlinking tools will allow the investigator to hone in on a single protein structure and span out to the neighboring genes and chemical soup that stimulate the expression of that gene. The investigator will see that protein, the organ constructed by that and other proteins, and information about how to repair that organ should it be damaged from injury or disease. She’ll also find a seamless pathway from the gene to a patient’s electronic health record that includes images and test results depicting the phenotype arising from the gene’s expression, and she’ll be able to evaluate her findings in context by seeing the presentation of that phenotype across communities and the public.

Becoming such a library requires a blue print for action, a pathway to guide its members in the critical choices needed to make the imaginings real. Such a library also requires bravery among its staff members, who must face together a future characterized both by exciting opportunities and significant uncertainties. And such a library requires a 21st-century building with the technologies and flexibilities that can foster among its people the innovation and collaboration needed to create tools, design databases, and anticipate the future.

We’re on our way.

At today’s Town Hall, the NLM leadership described how we’ve assessed the quality and integrity of our existing services, spoke with gratitude of the advisors who identified the strengths and opportunities in our research programs, and acknowledged the countless staff members who have helped us understand both what we do best and what we must continue doing going forward. I join them now in thanking all of you for your time and input, for thinking with us about our future, and for evaluating critically and systematically not just what we can do to what we must do to remain strong and relevant in our third century.

For those of you reading this, I invite you to suggest, critique, engage, and debate about NLM’s future. Perhaps your guidance will be the one that arrives in the nick of time to clear the way to our next step. Otherwise, please stay with us and watch our imaginings become reality.

 

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

2 thoughts on “Imagine our future…and help make it happen”

  1. I applaud and share the goals of the strategic plan; however, I am concerned that it does not address the basic underpinnings on which it must rely. In particular, what is the strategy at NLM for metadata? I was asked to represent NLM on a panel discussion on the future of metadata but could not do so because it is not addressed in the strategic plan, or elsewhere to my knowledge – I do not know what NLM’s strategy is for the future of metadata. As a metadata librarian at NLM, this is a grave concern.
    The strategic plan talks about what NLM wants to do with metadata. The big data and data science goals of the strategic plan rely on underlying metadata, yet the metadata itself seems to be blithely glossed over as if metadata strategies at NLM will just advance organically and independently and NLM will naturally adjust itself accordingly. But that can’t be the case if we are to have strong futuristic programs built on metadata, as the strategic plan suggests. Will we continue to create and share XML and rely on DTDs or will we move to JSON or linked data/RDF or something else and replace DTDs with schemas or metadata application profiles? What kind of flexible and extensible metadata strategy does NLM intend to follow so that we can support innovative use of metadata? Metadata changes are complex, involve many interdependencies, and need to be well thought and planned. Advancing metadata involves changes to technology and programming and coordination among NLMs various datasets and those that use them.

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    1. Thank you so much for writing, Nancy. I appreciate you taking me up on my invitation to engage on these topics so important to NLM.

      I absolutely agree with you about the fundamental importance of metadata. You’re absolutely right, too, that you won’t find a lot of granular detail in the high-level Strategic Plan document.

      But that doesn’t mean we don’t care about metadata! The Medline 2022 project, which is already underway, is helping shape our metadata strategy, identifying the questions we need to ask, and generating and evaluating options for addressing them.

      Figuring out what to change, how to change it, who needs to be involved, and how to work with those various communities will take time, patience, expertise, and tenacity—along with people like you willing to help tackle the job. I’m glad you’re with us to help get us down the road.

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