How Do the Values of NLM Shape and Support Its Mission?

book titled "NLM Values" pulled off a bookshelf

I have been taking some time recently to talk with the National Library of Medicine (NLM) Leadership Team about the values that guide what we do at NLM.

As one of the 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), NLM works in the same way as the other institutes and centers: We conduct and support research through our intramural and extramural programs; we share data, information, and knowledge through human and electronic means; and we guide NIH policy and practices in data science and scholarly communication through the expertise of our outstanding staff.

Yet… as a LIBRARY, we do this work in a manner different from other parts of NIH. Certainly, the focus of our research, computational health, computational biology, and information science reflects the unique disciplinary nature of NLM. We work deeply in partnership with clinicians and scientists across NLM and around the world as we organize, preserve, and disseminate the knowledge generated. And, importantly, the core values of libraries everywhere serve as a foundation that shapes how we carry out our work. According to this article in Harvard Business Review, core values are deeply ingrained principles that guide all of an organization’s actions. As you may know, “permission-to-play” values describe the behavior and social expectations of an organization such as respect for the individual, promoting a workplace free of harassment, or commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. So while there are many statements that all organizations, including NLM, use to guide how we manage our organization and what we expect of all staff members, the core value statements constitute what differentiates us from other NIH institutes.

In pursuit of NLM’s longstanding mission to acquire, organize, and disseminate health-related information, we maintain these core values:

  • Collect broadly reflective of biomedical science and health care
  • Preserve intentionally
  • Respect the privacy and scientific freedom of our users and patrons
  • Ensure the integrity, transparency, and accountability of NLM and its product and services
  • Innovate purposefully, driven by research

Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail:

  • Collect broadly reflective of biomedical science and health care.

NLM has a statutorily assigned responsibility to create a collection that reflects the knowledge needed for health and biomedicine. Fulfilling this responsibility requires that NLM engage in frequent dialogue with scientific and clinical stakeholders around the country and the world. Our collections process is overseen by our Board of Regents, a committee formed under the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Over time, this value has driven NLM to determine how it will incorporate new types of knowledge (such as genomics) from new types of data (such as genomic sequences), as well as new forms of information (sound, video, waveforms, and software)!

  • Preserve intentionally.

Preserving the knowledge of a society is a well-established function of a library. This means more than placing books on a shelf. Our technical services staff and curators recognize that with each acquisition, we are making a commitment to ensure that our materials are findable and accessible. NLM takes special precautions to ensure the physical security and integrity of our holdings. We recently began exploring a lifecycle approach to collection management that purposefully addresses the balance between utilization (how much our resources are accessed by patrons), endurance (the long-term view required for access), and cost effectiveness (how best to serve our patrons and their needs for access).

  • Respect the privacy and scientific freedom of our users and patrons.

Libraries hold fast to the principle that users and patrons should be able to explore their holds with a minimal amount of supervision. It is a patron’s right and a library’s responsibility to ensure that libraries do not keep records of what a specific patron takes out, and that creates an opportunity for us to evaluate our resources by tracking how they are used rather than by who uses them.

  • Ensure the integrity, transparency, and accountability of NLM and its products and services.

As a federal library, NLM believes that the American public, which funds our efforts through taxes and expects our resources to be maintained at the highest level of reliability, must avoid unintended bias in the collection, acquisition, and search process and demonstrate good stewardship of the federal investment.

  • Innovate purposefully, driven by research.

In a recent blog post, I shared a quote that says libraries are lungs, which reflects the organic, constantly evolving nature of a library. To NLM, this means adopting a culture of continuous innovation that is informed by and, to some extent, inspires scholarly inquiry. NLM prides itself on the tight link we create between our research and our services. This link helps inspire new products and new ways to deliver our services.

Values are not simple to articulate. They require careful thought, deliberation, and conversation to make sure these statements become active, essential guides for NLM and not simply a nice statement on a plaque. They must be sufficiently broad to be useful for a complex organization yet reasonably precise to be sure that everyone who sees them understands them. These statements must be revisited periodically—say, once a year—to make sure their relevance persists and that our leadership understands how those statements guide our thinking and our decision-making.

Values are NOT prescriptions, and across a large organization like ours, they may manifest in different ways. For example, take a look at our value preserve intentionally. I love this value—it represents a library’s unique commitment to ensure the endurance of knowledge. However, that value statement in itself offers little specific guidance, so we may apply different strategies that we use to protect and store the thousands of journals and books in our holdings than we do to protect for the future the holdings in our vast genomic databanks. Technologies and business practices may lead us to employ different approaches to preserve the published literature as the publication milieu migrates from paper to e-journals.

As our exploration of values continues to evolve, we welcome your ideas about how values guide your operations and what values NLM should rely on as it serves science and society.

Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD

Director, National Library of Medicine

Dr. Brennan is the Director of the NIH National Library of Medicine, a leader in biomedical informatics and computational health data science research and the world’s largest biomedical library. Under her leadership, NLM has grown its intramural and extramural research enterprise, extended stakeholders’ access to credible and reliable health information, and acquired and preserved biomedical literature using cutting-edge digital research and outreach. Read more about Dr. Brennan.

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