Embracing the Future Change as Stewards of the Past

An Updated View from NLM’s History of Medicine Division

Guest post by Dr. Jeffrey S. Reznick, Chief of NLM’s History of Medicine Division.

Nearly two years ago, I wrote on this blog that embracing the future means engaging and grappling with change. Now, with our institution beginning to implement its new strategic plan, NLM’s History of Medicine Division continues to leverage its recent programmatic successes to embrace the change afoot here in the world’s largest biomedical library. As responsible and responsive stewards of the past, we have been working to anticipate and prepare for the needs the future.

As they have for so many other federal agencies, public-private partnerships have been key to our embracing change. Last year, in cooperation with Arcadia Publishing, we wrote, edited, and published a new and freely-available illustrated history of the Library, as part of Arcadia’s popular Images of America series. The book showcases the research and writing talents of our colleagues, including archivists, conservators, curators, historians, librarians, and technical specialists. Together, we showed that change has been a hallmark of the Library’s long history, through technical innovation, visionary leadership, and skillful work completed by a diverse and dedicated cadre of civil servants.

Public-private partnerships have also driven efforts to digitize, preserve, and make available our world-renowned collections. Last year, for example, in cooperation with our colleagues at the Wellcome Trust, we reached the half-million page milestone of the project to make freely available thousands of complete back issues of historically significant biomedical journals through PubMed Central (PMC) and its European counterpart, Europe PMC. Then, earlier this year, we completed the digitization of more than 12,000 pages of manuscripts from 15 archival collections in partnership with Adam Matthew Digital, a digital publisher of primary source collections from archives around the world.

With the growing volume of historical digital content available both here and at other archives, NLM is also embracing change by encouraging fresh approaches to studying and analyzing these collections. Through our ongoing partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities, we hosted Viral Networks: An Advanced Workshop in Digital Humanities and Medical History. The workshop brought together scholars of medical history whose research makes innovative use of methods, tools, and data from the digital humanities. We expect the resulting scholarship to demonstrate the impact of mining digital surrogates and their associated metadata in data-focused research and help inspire new audiences to make use of these unique historical materials.

As an example of what such original approaches can uncover, our blog series Revealing Data explores what researchers from a variety of disciplines are learning now from centuries of preserved data. Their work also helps us think about the future preservation and uses of the data we collect today.

In that vein, we have embraced change by broadening NLM’s archival collections to include born-digital formats such as websites, social media, and data sets. Our Web Archiving and Collecting Working Group is leading the way with its collections on Ebola, Zika, HIV/AIDS, and the opioid epidemic. These web-based collections preserve for future research the ephemeral online record of modern health crises, documenting the work and experiences of health care providers, researchers, government agencies, news agencies, patients, and caregivers.

We have looked to embrace change by creating exhibitions that break new ground in demonstrating the research and educational value of our collections. And through our blog’s Making Exhibition Connections series we have been exploring the impact of those exhibitions as they travel across the country and around the world. Our latest exhibition on the emerging genre of graphic medicine, for example, gives voice (and image) to the personal experiences of patients, medical professionals, and family caregivers as they work within or work to navigate the health care field, providing insight into the emotional aspects of those experiences.

Such fresh perspectives help us engage new audiences, which is one more way we are embracing change. The Washington Post recently published three different stories about our outreach to the public—highlighting our blog, Circulating Now, spotlighting our exhibition on the history of domestic violence as a health issue, and featuring a few of the Library’s rare books in a story about the historical medical connections in the Harry Potter novels.

Finally, embracing change means supporting others’ professional development and helping them advance in their careers, face challenges, seize opportunities, and succeed in a climate of change. Whether through mentorships, formal courses, or on-the-job learning, we are developing and supporting the next generation of leaders both in our division and across our institution. And the efforts are paying off. Staff have frequently published or presented on their work—at Penn State Health’s Humanities First Friday and the Orphan Film Festival, among many other venues—and their success translates to NLM’s success, as we reach new audiences and connect them to the Library’s historical collections.

As the future of the National Library of Medicine unfolds—indeed as our institution continues to change as it always has to serve the public—its History of Medicine Division will continue to embrace change and look to the future.

More by Dr. Reznick
With Dr. Frederick Gibbs, Teaching and Researching the History of Medicine in the Era of (Big) Data: Reflections
With Dr. E. Thomas Ewing, History matters…through partnerships that advance research, education, and public service

Embracing the Future as Stewards of the Past

A View from NLM’s History of Medicine Division

Occasionally, I’ll be asking colleagues to offer their perspectives on the Library and what we do. In addition—given my particular interest in anticipating our third century—I might ask them to describe what that means for them, as Dr. Jeff Reznick, Chief of the NLM History of Medicine Division, so eloquently does in his guest post below.

For several years now, the NLM’s History of Medicine Division has been embracing the future as we continue our mission to collect, preserve, make freely available, and curate for diverse audiences the NLM’s treasured historical collections, which span ten centuries. I’ve described this mission as stewardship of the past, and I have argued that it is not mutually exclusive of embracing the future, because to be the best steward of history during times of change, it is important to anticipate, explore, and chart the paths toward many possible futures. So what do I mean by embracing the future?

Embracing the future means facing change. It means engaging and grappling with it, because studying history can contribute meaningfully to contextualizing and shaping change.

Embracing the future means supporting open and “citizen-centered” government. It means enabling access to all, not just a few. It means engaging new audiences, not only the traditional ones. It involves engagement across the disciplines, and across the spectrum of the public, to ensure that scholars, educators, and interested people of today and tomorrow can have access to the world’s historical medical heritage for research, teaching, and learning.

A collection of headshots of those who have written for the Circulating Now blog in the past year
A Chorus of Voices. Through its blog Circulating Now, the NLM is giving voice to our patrons from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, who—each in his or her own way and together—recognize the research and educational value of our world-renowned historical collections.

Embracing the future means embracing fair use and supporting robust digitization as a means of both access and preservation, and achieving these goals through mutually supportive public and private partnerships. Moreover, embracing the future means appreciating and understanding that digitized historical medical collections exist in a format appealing not only to those focused on deep reading and close study of individual works, but also to scholars and to entirely new audiences interested in mining these digital surrogates and their associated metadata data for more data-focused research. The evolving digital world is producing an ever-increasing volume of digitized physical material and born-digital resources. The worlds of “big data” and data science are meeting a longstanding world of persistent physical objects that contain records of the human condition. As these worlds collide and coexist, opportunities abound to advance interdisciplinary collaboration and expand cooperation among institutions and organizations that preserve history and support current and future medical research, and research in all disciplines.

Embracing the future means pursuing exhibitions and otherwise giving voice to the research and educational value of our historical collections as they speak to important contemporary and historical topics like domestic violence, AIDS, health care professions, and slavery.

And finally, from a leadership perspective, embracing the future means meeting individuals where they stand, treating them as colleagues and as part of a team. It means supporting mentorship to advance careers, continuous learning to advance interdisciplinary research, and teaching focused on historical and contemporary issues of health and the human condition. These initiatives are not only keys to embracing the future of challenges and opportunities. They are keys to succeeding in that future.

More by Dr. Reznick
Embracing the Future as Stewards of the Past: Charting a Course Forward for Historical Medical Libraries and Archives  Article | Lecture
Joining Together for a Win-Win (with co-author Simon Chaplin)