Glad to Meet You Virtually: Reflections on the MLA Conference

I’ve just “returned” from the Medical Library Association (MLA) ’20 Conference Live Action Week held August 10–14. After much deliberation and rescheduling, this meeting, like so many others, was reimagined in a virtual format using video, text and chats, and online presentations to connect attendees.

Returned is a funny term because, of course, I didn’t travel any farther than from my desk to the table in my home office. But during those several days, I turned my focus away from my usual pursuits while I attended virtual sessions and participated in discussions to improve my understanding of how NLM can align its efforts with MLA to meet the health information needs of society.

MLA is a global organization with a membership of more than 400 institutions and 3,000 professionals in the health information field. NLM and MLA partner to address issues related to health information services and to support joint educational programs. MLA’s annual meeting provides NLM with opportunities to introduce new products and initiatives, get feedback on our services, and learn how to better support the medical library community.

I was delighted to join my NLM colleagues Dianne Babski, acting associate director of NLM’s Division of Library Operations, and Amanda J. Wilson, chief of NLM’s Office of Engagement and Training, to update conference participants on NLM activities and share a new video introducing NLM. We centered our remarks around three themes: relevance, resilience, and reinvention.

NLM strives to be relevant to the evolving health information needs of professionals, researchers, and patients — our mission since NLM was established in 1836. Being relevant means understanding and anticipating information needs in a principled way. This requires a great deal of resilience across our organization as scientific communication advances, research paradigms shift, and the very words we use to characterize health problems and label health outcomes evolve. Remaining engaged, particularly during this time of maximum telework and urgent efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic (in addition to focusing on our usual work), also requires resilience. So NLM is reinventing the way we do our work; the manner in which we engage our stakeholders; and our ability to deliver products and services to partners who are also facing challenges related to social-distancing measures, reduced hours, or the elimination of services due to cost-cutting initiatives.

During our presentation we shared an update on efforts to enhance our approach to reaching communities through the work of the evolved NNLM and its new name – the Network of the National Library of Medicine. This more focused and inclusive name acknowledges that not all members are libraries of medicine. Its new goal? To increase health equity through information – which adds an important new dimension to NNLM’s mission. This effort also involves an increased emphasis on reaching underrepresented populations and balances NNLM regions across communities served.

We encouraged medical librarians to consider how these themes — relevance, resilience, and reinvention — play out in their lives. It’s no secret that traditional opportunities for hospital librarians are disappearing at a time when their expertise is more relevant than ever. This change requires a measure of reinvention to determine how to add data science and data librarianship skills to a medical library training program and work history and identify new ways to serve the public with the original zeal that brought people to medical librarianship. During this time of challenge — and opportunity — medical library professionals are also being called upon to demonstrate the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and the ability to spring back into shape, that is, to be resilient.

So, what was missing from this year’s conference?

I missed hugs! I missed the serendipitous encounters with far-flung colleagues as we rushed to another session but still found time to exchange greetings. I missed Teresa Knott’s smile and missed seeing former associates and NLM/Association of Academic Health Science Libraries fellows who have become professionals. I missed meeting in person with MLA leadership to continue learning how to become a better partner. And I missed seeing my NLM colleagues, both those who work here in Bethesda and those who work at other locations around the country.

Relevance. Resilience. Reinvention. Each of these is infused and strengthened during interactions with colleagues at national conferences and in our everyday workplaces.

How can NLM help ensure the presence of these qualities in your life during this time of virtual meetings?

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

3 thoughts on “Glad to Meet You Virtually: Reflections on the MLA Conference”

  1. Thanks for the excellent update and the lovely shout out! I miss hugging my frolleagues. It was great to “see” you from afar.

    1. Hi Teresa – While MLA provided some nice virtual opportunities to catch up with friends and colleagues, it’ll never replace the power of a hug! Look forwarding to seeing you soon.

      – Patti

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