The Wonder of Everyday Things

Child and father playing in the snow on left. Young girl gazing upward in a library at right.

As I write this, the National Institutes of Health campus is blanketed with a light dusting of snow. The roads and paths are clear, but the grass is covered everywhere. As I walked past the day care building, I spied a dad watching his toddler girl crunch through the snow-covered grass. She slid one way and stomped another, in all ways just delighting in it. Her whole face, especially her eyes, conveyed joy and amazement. Watching her was so enjoyable that I had a hard time moving on, toward Building 38 and the work that awaited me.

This little scene reminded me of a sentiment that’s been shared with me by many NLM patrons and stakeholders around the world: A library is a place to experience the wonder of everyday things.

Indeed, a library provides a window to the wonders of the world, from scientific discoveries to historical artifacts to new ideas about the universe. But it’s also a repository, of sorts, of many everyday things. People approach a library with questions big and small, and they leave with greater understanding and new ideas. Perhaps a library can be described as a platform to experience wonder.

For many people, the idea of a library is filled with the experiences of youth. Maybe you were taken to the library by a parent, teacher, or sibling. Or maybe you visited a bookmobile, like I did, that traveled around bringing all sorts of books to your community. Did you, like Maria, a woman I worked with once in homeless shelter, bring your family to the downtown library each Saturday, so your children had a warm, safe place to read and explore? Perhaps you were brought to the NLM reading room when your mother perused our holdings in the course of her studies. Did your school have a library, or learning resource center, for further exploration outside the classroom? Did you feel like a grown-up when your youth library card was replaced with a regular one, giving you access to everything in the “adult room”?

I hope you still experience some of that childhood excitement when you approach and use the resources of the National Library of Medicine. While only a few people physically enter our library building now, every day over 3 million people connect with us online — to find articles, review what’s new in their field, explore the relationship between genes, find potential targets for new cancer chemotherapies, and so much more.

As a 21st-century library, NLM faces the challenge of how to create the special environment of the physical libraries that many of us experienced when we were young. To me, it truly is a bit less satisfying to tap on a keyboard than to walk through the stacks and pull down a book with an interesting title. We’ve yet to create the electronic equivalent of the hum of library patrons talking to each other or the reference librarian. And we haven’t captured that unique smell of old books and periodicals, which strengthened our sense of connection with the people who had opened and read those same pages before us.

The world has become more complicated, and the need for libraries and their services has only continued to grow.

To serve our users’ changing needs, NLM is constantly looking for new ways to construct searches or present results or display images of our holdings. And while the practical concerns surrounding the transmission of knowledge seem to be our focus, I’m always thinking about how we can deliver that knowledge in a way that sparks wonder in everyday things. Please share how we can do this for you!

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

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