Guest post by Martha Meacham, MA, MLIS, NNLM Project Director
It’s a time of transformation and growth for the NLM’s Network of the National Library of Medicine (the Network or NNLM). Throughout its 61-year history, the Network has excelled at reaching people in communities throughout the United States. Today, the Network comprises more than 8,800 academic health science libraries, hospital, and public libraries and community organizations. NNLM has endured because of its ability to adapt and respond to changes in support of its mission to advance the progress of medicine and improve public health by serving librarians, researchers, clinicians, and the public. Today, approximately 90% of the U.S. population lives in a county with at least one NNLM member, and 93% of minority populations in the U.S. lives in a county with at least one NNLM member.
Leveraging the strength and expertise of its member organizations, NNLM offers funding for community-based projects that improve access to health information, increase engagement with research and data, expand professional knowledge, and support outreach that promotes awareness and use of NLM resources in local communities. Through the extraordinary work done by Network staff, NNLM has successfully developed and demonstrated effective engagement strategies in communities across the country. For example, the recently funded project “Surviving COVID-19, In A Virtual World” partnered with a local beauty salon to educate, train, and inform the community about COVID-19 and ways to prevent contracting and spreading the disease. The “Combatting COVID-19 Misinformation with Health Literacy Microcontent” project involved working with a community-based organization to provide easily accessible, culturally appropriate “microcontent,” short-form imagery and video content that can be consumed in 10-30 seconds or less, aimed at dispelling misinformation around COVID-19 and vaccines. And the “Informacion para tu Salud en tu Casa” project involved working with a local non-profit organization to improve the health and wellbeing of the Hispanic community by providing health information and resources, and by connecting people to health services through community health workers.
Strengthening the Network’s reach and impact requires continued evaluation and improvement. This includes reassessment of NNLM’s Regional Medical Libraries (RMLs). RMLs coordinate the operations of regional and national programs, as well as ensure a continuity of quality service for core programs of the NNLM.
Over the years, NNLM has evolved from a maximum of ten institutions serving as RMLs, to the long held eight RMLs, and now to a new configuration of seven RMLs.
This reorganization reconfigures regions and reduces disparities between regions in two ways:
- Total population served
- Number of member libraries and organizations supported
Balancing the regional areas of coverage and populations served allows for deeper connections and greater impact. Also, in addition to our traditional library partners, NNLM membership has expanded to include a wider variety of community-based organizations including faith-based organizations and K-12 schools, among others. As of April 2021, nearly 40% (3,482) of the total number of NNLM member organizations are not what we would have traditionally called libraries. This diversity supports NNLM’s new goal to “advance health equity through information,” with a focus on serving underrepresented populations.
RMLs will meaningfully engage with current and future audiences to increase information access, prioritizing underrepresented populations, including those experiencing health disparities by nature of race and ethnicity, biological sex, gender identity or expression, and sexual orientation, cognitive and physical abilities, religious background or identification, socioeconomic status (past and current), education level, health literacy, and linguistic needs, geographic location including underrepresented populations from medically underserved areas, and other factors that create unequal access to health care. The Network is positioned to address health inequities that contribute to health disparities.
NLM is committed to addressing the challenge of health disparities and seeks new ways to provide understandable and trusted health information resources in a variety of ways to support diverse and underserved populations.
A number of creative projects are underway to support NNLM’s new goal.
Working with medical professionals in various specialties, NNLM’s “Educating Healthcare Professionals and the Sighted Community of Worcester County on the Health Disparities among VIPs 2020-2021” project seeks to improve health literacy and reduce health disparities for individuals who are blind or who suffer with low vision. ‘Kina (Together)’ is a program serving Native Americans (Ojibwe) in northern Minnesota, and “Unidos en Nuestra Salud – Providing Capacity Building to our Community Members as Well as Public Health Education Regarding COVID-19” provides health education and health literacy skills to the Spanish-speaking community including, but not limited to, health information intermediaries such as librarians, community health workers, public health professionals, and community members that represent medically underserved populations.
For more than 60 years, NNLM has provided a trusted local platform for community outreach and engagement to promote health. As we look to the future, new possibilities and an agile approach will maintain, build upon, and grow this successful and valued program.
Martha Meacham is the Project Director of NNLM. Martha is a passionate advocate for improving the health of all through access to and understanding of health information.