The Public Libraries are Opening! The Public Libraries are Opening!

Of all the wonderful signs and sounds heralding a change in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, none is more welcome than the news that public libraries are reopening. If you, like me, remember spending hot summer afternoons in the cool, air-conditioned library, this mid-summer news may bring a smile to your face. For me, as NLM director, this means that NLM will once again have another pathway to help people all over the country access the resources of NLM from their community library.

As public libraries closed their buildings during the pandemic, library staff continued to serve their communities in innovative ways, including home delivery of library books by bike from the Hinsdale Public Library. The joys of reopening are shared by patrons and staff alike, as illustrated in this photo essay from The New York Times:

Working in libraries “feels like home,” Mishael Gis, 28 [a patron], told me. She was using a computer for taxes and research. The scene felt like a homecoming.

Michael Rios, 45, a librarian for children, has spent the pandemic helping readers remotely. But what he likes is helping kids find the unexpected: “I help people search, physically. That’s the part that speaks to me. So, this is great. Huge.”

NLM has a special relationship with public libraries. Many public libraries are members of our Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM) and have access to, through NNLM’s seven Regional Medical Libraries, specialized training and resources that enable patrons to tap into the resources and knowledge base of NLM. As members of the NNLM, staff of those libraries have access to hundreds of courses and learning resources provided at no cost, bringing new knowledge about data science and communicating health information to a wide range of audiences.

Public libraries also provide NLM with a ‘finger on the pulse’ of communities around the nation. This helps us understand what kinds of health information are most valued and how to best deliver it.

NLM’s relationship with public libraries supports NIH and provides a mutually beneficial way to leverage partnerships around the country and bring information and opportunities about NIH research programs into communities. For more than 5 years, our NNLM has partnered with NIH’s All of Us Research Program to provide community-based information about participating in this ambitious effort. All of Us is building a diverse community of more than 1 million participants across the country to help researchers learn more about how genetics, environment, and lifestyles affect individuals’ health, especially those in communities who have historically been excluded from large-scale research programs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the NNLM also partnered with the NIH Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities to use community-engaged strategies to reduce the burden of COVID-19 among communities disproportionately affected.

Come celebrate with me! The public libraries are opening! The public libraries are opening!

Preparing for the Best Future We Can Imagine

Last year we published a blog on my birthday . . .  I love my birthday! As I wrote last year  . . . When you grow up in a family of 10 kids, like I did, your birthday is a very special day. I celebrated my birthday last week and spent time with my dear friend, Viki, and took the opportunity to celebrate my life yet lived. 

At this point in my life, I find myself consumed with the awareness of how precious life is and how short it feels. The pandemic aggravated a sense that people are vulnerable, life is fragile, and there’s not much time. This sensation made me feel rather depressed. I’m not quite sure why as it’s been a busy and productive year. 

Over the past year, NLM accomplished so much by helping the NIH build the data infrastructure for genomic discovery to better respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for future ones; conducting research on the microbiome; and determining whether we could detect the presence of certain viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, through the analysis of wastewater. We funded new research to make it easier to understand health data and supported more than 300 trainees and fellows through our Extramural Programs Division. We learned how to telework and meet virtually. We kept our highly valued products and services open and operational 24 hours, 7 days a week. We onboarded new staff, said goodbye to coworkers who retired or moved on, and mourned the deaths of several colleagues.

Slowly, as we’ve all been emerging from the pandemic shutdown to discover new ways of being, I find my spirits lifting and my eyes looking towards the future with optimism and joy.

Part of this feeling comes from a deep and respectful pride for NLM’s accomplishments over the year, and the role I’ve played in it. Some of it comes from welcoming new children and spouses into my very large family. A lot of it comes from the sense of purposeful living that helped me transform a sense of isolation to an engagement with others to co-create a new future. What I’ve realized is that we never actually know our future, so preparing for the best future we can imagine is probably the smartest strategy.

This year, as I add another digit to the long lists of digits that I’ve already accumulated, I’m preparing for the best future that I can imagine. I’m exercising more, practicing the piano with greater diligence, and spending meaningful time with friends and family. I’m engaging with NLM leadership and staff to envision the future of work and to enhance the inclusivity and diversity of our work environment.

I’ve somehow managed to shake off the sense of gloom and doom and see a future that appears limitless to me—awaiting what I can be bold enough to envision, create, and accomplish. Please join me in celebrating my birthday and stepping into the future.

Keeping Found Things Found . . .

About 15 to 20 years ago, in the early days of browsers and websites, colleagues from the University of Washington, led by William Jones, launched a research project called “Keeping Found Things Found.” They interviewed many people to explore what we now call personal information management. You know what this is – it’s how you keep track of your medications, your child’s vaccination record, and your family’s health history. People are amazing at devising clever ways to hold on to personally meaningful and important information – you might even have yours stored in kitchen cupboards, file cabinets, calendars, and even family bibles!

If there’s one thing that libraries do well it’s keeping found things found and making them findable to others. NLM excels at this. NLM has more than 3 million books and journals in our physical collection, millions of genomic sequences in our data banks, and we maintain electronic access to almost 13,000 journals. We’ve also been devising new ways to make our print collection accessible during the COVID-19 pandemic, when access to the NLM building is limited, and preserve the pathways to electronic journals.

One thing NLM is NOT good at is personal health information management—this just isn’t our specialty. NLM funds research to better support people’s abilities to create personal health libraries, but we don’t store personal health information. NLM’s hallmark is acquiring, preserving, and making available for public use scientific knowledge for health as represented in books, journal articles, and data banks. Under special circumstances, we will create ways to collect and archive public information that supports personal health actions that stem from events ranging from the AIDS crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sometimes libraries help create public information from personal stories. NLM is doing just that to capture the experiences of federal volunteers who have been helping support HHS’ Administration for Children and Families Office of Refugee Resettlement Unaccompanied Children Program. By partnering with the Office of NIH History & Stetten Museum, we are compiling and making available the personal stories of NIH staff who volunteered for this important initiative.

My family and I have also benefited from programs supported by federal libraries to keep the stories of individual people found. In 2005, my son and I participated in an initiative supported by a nonprofit organization to record, preserve, and share a wide variety of stories told by people just like you and me. To prepare for our interview, my then 11-year-old son, Conor, scanned the suggested questions (which he wouldn’t tell me about ahead of time) and ventured off to the mobile studio. It was an amazing experience.

Each storyteller gets about 45 minutes to speak while a sound engineer records the interview on high-quality audio, which is eventually preserved. Participants are offered the opportunity to have their story archived at the Library of Congress and have a portion of their story broadcast over NPR (National Public Radio). Conor and I agreed to both, so we became a part of the many personal stories of the United States. You can listen to the segment broadcast on NPR here.

I loved this whole experience and treasure the sound of my son’s 11-year-old voice. The variety of questions he asked me was surprising, and it gave us a new chance to document our family history. Yet, figuring out what to do with that CD recording over the ensuing decade has been a challenge to me – it’s moved with me three times and is now lodged between two cookbooks on one of my bookshelves – making me grateful that that I have a library and a URL that is helping keep this important thing found.

There are a lot of good reasons why NLM should NOT be the place where personal information is found – privacy, personal control, and the ever-growing trail of records that characterize health care across the life span. The complex mess of papers, pictures, and small books that most of us use to keep track of personal information aren’t amenable to the services of a library, whose goal is to acquire, preserve and promote access by all to a broad range of information. But there are many stories, records, and other notations about our health that individuals need to keep found across their life span. NLM needs your ideas here – should we fund the development of new apps that manage health information? Should we collaborate with electronic health records system companies to urge them to build personal health information resources for their patients? Is this a place where stimulating the business market could help?

I’m grateful that the Library of Congress committed to storing brief encounters between people telling their life stories, but in order to keep my story found, I had to share it with others.

What can we do to keep things found and accessible only to the individual?

Five Years and Counting!

On August 13, 2016, I became the first woman, nurse, and industrial engineer to serve as director of the National Library of Medicine (NLM). From its beginning in 1836 as a small collection of books in the library of the U.S. Army Surgeon General’s office, NLM has become a global force in accelerating biomedical discovery and fostering evidence-based practices. I am proud to direct this esteemed organization and delighted to guide it towards its third century beginning in 2036. 

This has been an exciting five years for NLM.

We accelerated data-driven discoveries and advanced training in analytics and data science across NIH and around the world. Our genomic resources played a crucial role in supporting NIH and the scientific community’s ability to understand a novel virus and address the COVID-19 pandemic. NLM investigators developed innovative uses of deep learning and artificial intelligence and applied them to a wide range of problems – ranging from interpretation of clinical images to improving search and retrieval of highly relevant citations from NLM’s PubMed biomedical literature database.

NLM pioneered strategies to link data sets to articles through our PubMed Central (PMC) digital archive, and doubled the size of the NLM-supported Network of the National Library of Medicine—reaching almost every congressional district in the United States with the capacity to connect NLM resources to communities in need.

We provided technical expertise to develop a secure single sign-on to a wide range of controlled data resources, and redeployed our research infrastructure to help public health authorities detect foodborne outbreaks and track the emergence of coronavirus variants. We also advanced our use of automated-first indexing to make sure that the published literature is available to our stakeholders as quickly as possible.

With the support and collaboration of other components of NIH, we are building a 21st century digital library that uses our collections to offer literature, data, analytical models, and new approaches to scientific communications that are accessible, sustainable, and available 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.

NLM’s archival collections continue to grow and evolve as the archival records of individuals, organizations, and other communities in health and medicine are increasingly created and communicated electronically or digitally. We expanded the formats and types of records we collect—and make accessible and usable— to include born-digital formats such as websites, social media, and data sets. For example, NLM deployed innovative techniques to prospectively curate and add COVID-19-related information from traditional news, social media, and other sources to our Digital Collections. These 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.

As a nurse and an industrial engineer specializing in health systems engineering applied to patient self-management, I bring a perspective to NLM that expands its mandate from supporting biomedical researchers and clinical practitioners to one that aggressively supports the health of the nation.

During my tenure, NLM’s footprint has expanded by:

  • Growing our research enterprise in support of data-driven discovery;
  • Supporting key priorities of the NIH in data science, access to secure data repositories, and community engagement;
  • Strengthening the integrity and efficiency of our internal resources to accelerate the acquisition, preservation, and dissemination of biomedical data; and
  • Expanding our commitment to public outreach and engagement.

Two guiding principles have shaped my work:   

One NLM

I initiated the One NLM concept as an organizing framework during my first year as director of NLM. One NLM creates a rallying point, making explicit that all our offices and divisions work in concert and in support of NLM’s mission. As described in my January 2017 blog post entitled, One NLM:


One NLM emphasizes the integration of all our valuable divisions and services under a single mantle and acknowledges the interdependency and engagement across our programs. Certainly, each of our stellar divisions . . . have important, well-refined missions that will continue to serve science and society into the future. The moniker of One NLM weaves the work of each division into a common whole. Our strategic plan will set forth the direction for all of the National Library of Medicine, building on and augmenting the particular contributions of each division.

Strengthening the NLM Senior Leadership Team

I employ a team model of leadership—engaging the deputy director, four division directors, and four office directors in biweekly meetings. With the support of external consultants, we engaged in a one-year leadership development activity focused on building capacity for joint decision making, improving risk tolerance, and creating an environment that supports trans-NLM collaborative problem solving. I found that continued engagement with individual members and the leadership team established an organizational milieu that led to improved trust in each other. And the team, which held up in good stead during a period of maximum telework in response to COVID-19, ensured the innovative mobilization of NLM resources to help NIH rapidly assume new research programs, respond to public health needs, and most importantly serve as a trusted source of information.

What I’ve Learned

While I remain true to my core values and beliefs, I’m not the same Patti Brennan as I was when I entered the ‘Mezzanine’ floor of NLM’s Building 38 nearly five years ago. I’ve learned to mobilize and reward the talents of the 1,700 people working at NLM to achieve common goals. I figured out how to work with a boss, something few academics ever actually face. I’m better at finding the niche into NIH conversations and policy-setting meetings where the talents of NLM and our deep understanding of data science accelerate NIH’s mission to turn discovery into health. I’ve created space in conversations for the voices of others, particularly the members of my leadership team with whom, I’ve learned, complement my vision and drive with their knowledge and discernment. It’s been a great ride!

How does the you of 2021 compare to the you of 2016?  

Learning from my Irish Heritage

Today is the Christian Feast of Saint Patrick, one of Ireland’s patron saints who lived during the fifth century. Celebrated today around the world as St. Patrick’s Day, this observance has evolved into a celebration of Irish culture and is a day of fun and family for those who are Irish or wish they were! As one of the 70 to 80 million people around the world who claim Irish roots, this celebration offers a chance for me to reflect on my own Irish heritage and what I have learned from it. And as those who have read this blog before know, family is of preeminent importance to me as a source of joy, strength, and comfort — all of which I have drawn on throughout my life.

Ireland is best known for its music and mythology, sports, scholars, and, most relevant to me, deep allegiance to kin groups. I can’t claim any skill on the feadan (tin whistle) or the cláirseach (the 30 string harp), although I enjoy a céilí (a celebration), and I do have some familiarity with the mythology, particularly the Morrígan, the Celtic triple war goddess of old, Queen Maeve, the strong-willed, ambitious, and fearless legend, and the warrior queens of the North. In terms of sports, I’ve learned enough to enjoy a hurling match and can follow Gaelic football. Ireland is known as ‘the land of saints and scholars,’ and my Irish heritage has provided me with a genuine and deep-seated love of learning that has been integral in my life.

Valuing my Irish heritage means also looking clearly at what makes Ireland what it is today.

The response to oppression gave rise to nationalism and a drive to be an independent sovereign state, leading to independence in 1921 (only 100 years ago!) and militance with sometimes tragic results advanced in the name of freedom. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought about the end to one kind of violence. The Good Friday Agreement brought a measure of quietude to the challenges of expressing different views, yet more than twenty years later, differences still persist. And the recent investigations into mother and baby homes engendered an awareness of the need for the apologies to survivors of this awful period in Irish history.

Some believe the “Irish temperament” is a mixture of stubbornness, personal warmth, and a wit that shines through adversity. I certainly hope I have all three of these, perhaps a bit more of the latter two than the first. However, having a bit of stubbornness is important, particularly as the director of NLM, which serves as NIH’s center for biomedical informatics research and the world’s largest biomedical library. Being stubborn, coupled with warmth and wit, has helped me guide the NLM as it approaches its 3rd century in existence. It has helped me serve as an advocate for the technical infrastructure necessary to secure our resources and to make them permanently available around the world. It has provided me with the tenacity needed to hold firm to the values of what libraries mean to society – institutions rooted in collecting and disseminating the literature of the world with integrity and without censorship.

What this means to NLM is that we must continue to hold to our enabling legislation of 1956, to acquire, preserve … materials pertinent to medicine and … make available… materials in the library. As Joyce Backus, our former Associate Director of Library Operations, was fond of saying, “science is self-correcting,” meaning that we don’t need to exclude materials that are no longer aligned with our global perspectives, but we do need to continue to gather and make available the full range of information.  

So, I hope you join in the celebration of all that is Irish on this St Patrick’s Day and remember that history is complex — and the purpose of libraries, including the National Library of Medicine, is to reflect the progress and perspectives across time, rather than a snapshot of a particular point in time.

How can we help you in this celebration?