Reflections on a Reflection

NLM’s role within NIH

blue sky and clouds reflect in the windows of a tall building

What is the role of the National Library of Medicine within NIH?

A rare, low-humidity August day got me thinking about that question as I walked toward NLM one morning.

Catching sight of NLM’s Lister Hill Center, I saw the bright blue sky and scattered white clouds reflected in the windows that comprise the tower’s face. I then became aware that, given our location at the southeastern corner of campus, almost all of NIH was behind me. And those windows that both reflect the morning sky and allow the building’s occupants to see out got me thinking about how the Library does the same, both reflecting NIH and looking out, forward, toward the future.

NLM reflects NIH priorities and discoveries, as we curate and characterize biomedical and health science knowledge. We are a repository of that knowledge and a tool for discovery. We acquire, index, and make available relevant literature; amass and organize genetic, molecular, chemical, and toxicological information and data; develop methods for analyzing large data sets; construct sophisticated search strategies; and create algorithms, software, and other tools that leverage our holdings, whether literature or data. We then train NIH scientists and science support staff how to use them to speed discovery, sharing our products along with our talents. We also collaborate on committees across NIH, bringing to bear our expertise in medical informatics, standards, and data science on the complex medical and public health problems the greater institution is tackling.

But like the wall of windows in the Lister Hill Center, the Library also provides a way to look out and see what’s around us. By aggregating literature into meaningful clusters, NLM documents what’s known and maps the research terrain, highlighting questions still unanswered and the paths that lead to new discoveries. By collecting and exposing medicine’s past, NLM  gives historical context to contemporary ideas. NLM’s connections to the literature across disciplines help NIH investigators situate biomedical knowledge in the context of policy, philosophy, psychology, and the arts. And our molecular databases are increasingly linked to others in repositories around the world, bringing together articles, charts, models, images, and even clinical records and facilitating the bench-to-bedside pathway of discovery.

Windows also invite contemplation and thoughts about the future, and NLM’s work supports that as well. The tools we build can sharpen an investigator’s ability to foresee the future, from prediction algorithms to natural language processing and pattern recognition. We also have our own thoughts and plans for the future, for an NLM that supports data-driven discovery, data-powered health, and patient-centered care, and we’ll continue to pursue those plans in partnership with NIH.

Like windows on a sunny day, NLM reflects back to NIH the biomedical knowledge it needs to achieve its mission. And, like windows, we provide NIH a way to see and assess its environment, its context, and to think about its future. Those thoughts, in turn, will create the research world of tomorrow—for NIH and for NLM users and stakeholders around the globe. As has been the case since our founding in 1836, NLM will be there, reflecting, guiding, inspiring.

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

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