Revealing and Preserving Data for Today and Tomorrow

Guest post by Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, Chief of the History of Medicine Division (HMD) at the National Library of Medicine (NLM); Kenneth M. Koyle, MA, Deputy Chief of HMD; and Christie Moffatt, MLIS, Program Manager of the HMD Digital Manuscripts Program.

On this International Day for Universal Access to Information, we proudly showcase the globally appreciated role of NLM as a long-standing steward of vast collections of data even as it is now a recognized home of data science at the National Institutes of Health and beyond. A key part of the NLM mission is to provide access to that data and all the biomedical information we hold in our collections, which span ten centuries and originate from nearly every part of our world.

During the past several years, talented staff of the library have recognized this enduring and dedicated stewardship as part of our institution’s data-driven present and future by curating Revealing Data, an ongoing series of posts on the division’s popular blog Circulating Now. This series explores what data-minded researchers from a variety of disciplines are learning from centuries of data preserved in the collections of the NLM and associated with a variety of topics: from 17th-century bills of mortality to tuberculosis in the 19th-century to the 1918 influenza pandemic and more recent 20th- and 21st-century public health issues. Circulating Now also explores data-driven conservation research on some of our most treasured collections, research methods and tools for analysis in the study of digitized images and texts, and the origins, purpose, and development of highly regarded NLM resources like GenBank and the Index-Catalogue of the library of the Surgeon General’s Office.

A fundamental role of the NLM binds these data-driven explorations: its Congressionally mandated mission to collect, preserve, and provide access to past and present medical and scientific information in its multiplicity of formats, and, by extension, the vast amounts of data which reside in them. Generations of dedicated civil servants, including archivists, data scientists, historians, librarians, and many others, contributed their expertise to the NLM preserving the data-rich collections studied by a diverse field of researchers today. Without this commitment and these efforts, so much of this research would not be possible.

The NLM’s work of preservation continues today not only because it is mandated but also because the institution owes such work to future generations so they will be able to undertake their research, reveal new stories about the human condition, and make new discoveries. Today’s preservation work is evolving in tandem with changes to the collections themselves. NLM staff are developing new processes to collect and preserve web content, born-digital records, and digital ephemera while continuing to preserve vast quantities of data stored in paper, parchment, and vellum, some of it centuries old.

Viewed nearly 18,000 times since it was launched in 2017, Revealing Data reveals much more than valued data. It connects us to the very essence of NLM’s mission, its history, and the enduring importance of our institution’s initiative to preserve this data and the contexts in which it was originally created for today and tomorrow.

Dr. Reznick leads all aspects of HMD and has over two decades of leadership experience in federal, nonprofit, and academic spaces. As a cultural historian, he also maintains a diverse, interdisciplinary, and highly collaborative historical research portfolio supported by the library and based on its diverse collections and associated programs. Dr. Reznick is author of three books and numerous book chapters and journal articles including as co-author with Ken Koyle of History matters: in the past, present & future of the NLM, published in 2021 by the Journal of the Medical Library Association.

Before joining NLM, Mr. Koyle served as a medical evacuation helicopter pilot and as a historian in the U.S. Army. He is the co-editor with Dr. Reznick of Images of America: U.S. National Library of Medicine, which is a collaborative work with HMD staff.

Ms. Moffatt leads content development for NLM’s Profiles in Science website, which provides access to 20th century manuscripts in science, medicine, and public health. As Chair of the Library’s Web Collecting and Archiving Working Group, she supports web archiving on topics and events related to NLM collecting interests, including Global Health Events (Ebola, COVID-19, Monkeypox), HIV/AIDS, and the opioid epidemic, among others.

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