One Library, Many Worlds

Back in January, I wrote about One NLM, an idea that acknowledges the particular contributions of each division within the Library while supporting greater engagement across our programs, all aligned toward a common vision.

I wrote that post primarily for NLM staff, but in the intervening nine months, I’ve discovered I need to take the message of One NLM to those outside the Library as much as to those within it.

As I attend conferences and meet members of the many groups NLM serves, I’ve learned the role of the Library is in the eye of the beholder. Librarians see bibliographic resources. Scientists see tools for discovery, clinicians tools for diagnosis and care. Potential post-docs see opportunities for training, and teachers see resources for learning. Even though we are one NLM, we are viewed from those various perspectives more as parts than a whole.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I am working to make our stakeholders aware of both the parts they don’t naturally see and the single purpose that unites those parts.

Our core services are undeniably diverse. We acquire and preserve health and biomedical knowledge across disciplines and across the ages, and then devise platforms and processes to make this knowledge available to clinicians, researchers, and patients. We conduct research to develop more efficient ways to search the literature and to apply computational approaches, such as machine learning and natural language processing, to clinical data and published works to extract specific information. We also take advantage of our own genomic and other sequence data bases to discover the structure and functions of various genes and to create models of functional domains in proteins.

Given that diversity, it makes sense that those who use the Library might focus on one or a few of those services more than others, but for me and for the 1,700 women and men who work here, these services all contribute to one single vision: NLM as a platform for discovery.

Sometimes discovery comes by exploring PubMed’s literature citations to ground a new research program, other times by extracting gene sequences and their respective phenotypes from dbGaP, and yet other times by finding the perfect exercise to supplement a lesson plan.

In the end perhaps the lesson for all of us is that NLM is ultimately both its parts and its whole.

And my role is to help our many audiences better understand their favorite parts while learning more about the totality of who we are and how we serve society.

Words that mean a lot—reflections on swearing in

“I, Patricia Flatley Brennan, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

On September 12, 2016, I placed my left hand on Claude Pepper’s copy of the constitution, raised my right hand, and took this oath to became the 19th director of the National Library of Medicine. These words meant a lot to me then, and they continue to guide me. My oath is to support and defend the Constitution, bearing true faith and allegiance to the same.

Of all the words in the Constitution that I must support and defend, the most meaningful to me are “We, the people”. . . for it is the responsibility of the National Library of Medicine to support biomedical discovery and translate those discoveries into information for the health of people—all the people.

More importantly, as a member of the executive branch of the government, I am responsible for implementing legislation that directs the National Library of Medicine to:

  • acquire and preserve books, periodicals, prints, films, recordings and other library materials pertinent to medicine;
  • organize the materials by appropriate cataloging, indexing, and bibliographical listing;
  • publish catalogs, indexes, and bibliographies;
  • make available through loans, photographic, or other copying procedures materials in the library;
  • provide reference and research assistance;
  • engage in such other activities in furtherance of the purposes of this part as (the Surgeon General) deems appropriate and the library’s resources permit;
  • publicize the availability from the Library of the above products and services; and
  • promote the use of computers and telecommunications.

Thank goodness there are over 1,700 women and men to make sure this happens!

During this past year, other words and phrases have influenced and inspired me:

  • Public access

NLM leads the nation and the world in ensuring that everyone, from almost anywhere, can access our resources—from our bibliographic database PubMed to the genetics information in Genbank. Assuring public access means creating vast computer systems and interfaces that allow humans and computers to use our resources. It means helping shape the policies that protect copyright, promote openness, and preserve confidentiality. It means considering the public’s interest as we acquire new resources and design new applications. And, importantly, it means that we provide training and coaching to make our resources accessible, understandable, and actionable.

  • Third century

We date our beginning to books collected by a surgeon in an Army field hospital in 1836. Our first century laid the foundation for purposeful collection of biomedical knowledge, including creating catalogs and devising indexes. Our second century saw the digitization of knowledge and internet communication, delivering our resources at lightning speed around the world. In less than two decades, we begin our third century.

I can only imagine what our third century might bring! What I do know is that it is my job now to put in place a robust human, technical, and policy platform to prepare for our third century.

  • One NLM

It is a common engineering principle that a strong whole depends on strong parts. Indeed, NLM has very strong parts—NCBI with its genomic resources, Library Operations with the power and skill to index the world’s biomedical knowledge, the Lister Hill Center with its machine learning to accelerate the interpretation of images, and more.

During the past year, I have begun to see the crosswalks between our parts—for example, the partnership between our Office of Computer and Communications Systems with Library Operations to serve up vocabularies and the Value Set Authority Center that supports quality care monitoring, and the engagement between Specialized Information Services and the Lister Hill Center to build PubChem and Toxnet services.

We are poised to address the challenges laid out for us in 1956 not by building a single service to address each one, but to knit together the best of several services to efficiently and effectively advance health and biomedical discovery through information.

The ideas of Nina Matheson have helped shape my entire career. As Director of NLM, her words have taken on increased importance to me. In 1982, she talked about librarians as tool builders and system developers and solvers of information problems.

Inspired by these words through my first year, I embrace the idea—and, indeed, the ideal—that the library is the solution engine that will accelerate discovery in support of health for everyone.

Like the Constitution says, it all starts with “We the people.”

 

 

A Year of Connections

A look back on the Associate Fellowship year

Guest post by the 2016-2017 NLM Associate Fellows.

NLM Associate Fellowship Coordinator Kathel Dunn introduced our program in her post “NLM Associate Fellows Spark Library Alchemy,” speaking to the process of transformation this program can facilitate. As we, the 2016-2017 NLM Associate Fellows, prepare to bid NLM a fond farewell, we would like to share some reflections from our year and how we have been changed by our time here.

From our arrival on September 1, 2016, we knew this year would be different, as we began our fellowship only a few weeks after the arrival of Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan, NLM’s then recently appointed director. One of our first activities as a cohort was to attend Dr. Brennan’s swearing-in ceremony, and the issues that shaped her first year–strategic planning and envisioning NLM’s future –became threads woven throughout our formative curriculum sessions and have been intertwined with our experiences throughout the program.

The heart of this program resides in the people of NLM and their willingness to share their time and knowledge with us. Throughout the curriculum, and later during the project phase of our year, NLM staff from all levels of the organization made themselves available for conversation, connection, and collaboration. As a result, we were able to build relationships across the Library and see connections and interdependencies across departments.

The capacity for professional relationship building also extends beyond the walls of NLM. Each member of this year’s cohort led a spring project that relied on collaboration with an external partner. Megan Fratta conducted focus groups with cancer researchers across NIH and NCI to assess their PubMed-related training needs. Kendra Godwin interviewed open science policy makers, advocates, and innovators from across the global research community in her efforts to define open science at NLM. Tyler Moses conducted an information needs assessment for the residents of the Children’s Inn, the hospitality house for children and their families who participate in research trials at NIH. And, as part of an interagency collaboration between NLM and the FDA, Candace Norton investigated enhancements to search filters to support pharmacovigilance.

Among the other connections fostered through this program are those between the members of the cohort and NLM’s senior leadership. As a group, we met with each senior leader to discuss what makes NLM unique, what makes an exemplary leader, and how best to prepare for a career in a rapidly evolving profession. Their collective wisdom and insight are invaluable at this stage in our careers.

Perhaps the most important connections are those we’ve formed with each other, thanks to the program’s cohort learning model. We’ve been a fellowship of four, learning more because of each other and the collective insights of our shared experience, and from the conversations this year has inspired. The program under its current name has existed since 1966, and we’ve been impressed with the level of support from the Associate Fellows who preceded us, and the significant contributions they’ve made to the program, to NLM, and to the profession.

As we conclude our fellowship year at NLM and make space for the incoming 2017-2018 cohort’s arrival on September 1, we leave you with our respect and gratitude for making this opportunity possible. Thank you for a fascinating and life-changing year at NLM!

four young women, professional dressed, pose as a group

Guest bloggers (from left) Candace Norton, Megan Fratta, Kendra Godwin, and Tyler Moses served as 2016-2017 NLM Associate Fellows.

Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now

I’m just passing the one-year mark in my tenure as Director of the National Library of Medicine. It has been an exciting year for me, filled with many learnings and lessons, and with each week I grow more delighted with this outstanding organization. I have the great good fortune of having taken a leap into an uncertain-but-promising opportunity and finding it to be more rewarding, more delightful, and more engaging than I had anticipated—and I took this position with very high hopes!

I have grown a lot since I arrived here in August 2016, and as the master balladeer Bob Dylan noted, “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” A deep passion for NLM, its mission, its resources, and the people who work here replaces the early hope and excitement that accompanied me on my move to Bethesda. The bravado of vision is supplanted by the realities of working in the federal system. Acronyms and abbreviations now evoke people and processes for me. I have learned to appreciate the rich tapestry of scholarship, service, citations, and collections that make up the NLM. I have met many of our stakeholders and have come to see them as collaborators. And I’ve developed a new appreciation of the Library, not simply as a collection of resources, but also as a dynamic interaction of health and information.

Here are some surprises. I am struck by a sense of patriotism I found resting quietly deep in my soul. As the director of the only federally funded health library, I am responsible for ensuring our resources are expended in support of the public’s health—supporting discovery, knowledge delivery, and personal health management. I am proud of the 1,700 women and men who choose to work here, applying their knowledge and talents in service of society. And I am committed to weaving the tenets of open science through the mantle of government service.

I am amazed at how big the Library is—not just our buildings, with their byzantine hallways and underground spaces, but the human and electronic reach. Because of our 6,500-member National Network of Libraries of Medicine, the NLM has a footprint in almost every single county, and in American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. There is no country in the world that our resources can’t touch. We have 26 million citations in our PubMed bibliographic repositories, and petabytes of data moving in and out of our NCBI resources EVERY DAY!

And I am grateful—to the security guards who help protect our precious holdings, to our scientists who are finding ways to use literature and data to help our nation meet health crises such as the opioid epidemic, to our technical services team who keep our resources available 24 hours a day. I am grateful to the staff who have greeted me with welcome and patiently reminded me of their names. I am making progress, but I’ve still got a lot to learn.

Dylan’s words appeal to me because they characterize the arch of a journey, from initial awareness through growing familiarity to deep realization that the National Library of Medicine is truly a national treasure, and I am both humbled and proud to be guiding it towards its third century of service.

Photo credit (hourglass, top): Scott Schrantz [Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)]

On the Importance of Getting Away

Work-life balance is essential for a high-performing organization.

You can’t tell, but I am actually on vacation. I’ve taken off on a two-week road trip with a good friend. We’re traveling through the South and Southeast, enjoying friends in Asheville and Birmingham, checking out the music scenes in Memphis and Nashville, and visiting the monument to the Little Rock Nine honoring the high school students who, in 1957, braved physical and verbal abuse to desegregate Little Rock Central High School.

Two weeks of relaxing, reading, learning, visiting, and spa-ing are definitely good things.

I’ve been fortunate to have had many memorable vacations throughout my life, from camping trips in Maine with my parents and nine siblings to quick get-aways to the Jersey shore to some delightful work trips that let my son, Conor, and I add on time to explore parts of Asia, Europe, and South America. I have been lucky to have had the resources to fund vacations and the support of colleagues who made sure the work at home continued while I was away.

Through it all, I have come to realize it is just as important to have spaces between work as it is to have meaningful work.

As a nurse and an industrial engineer, I know that human performance is at its best when one takes breaks to relax and refresh. Inspiration gleaned during a hike through the woods can fuel the next research idea. Appreciating a centuries-old temple can open the mind and put into perspective a particularly knotty work challenge. And cleaning out closets or attending to family matters during a staycation can ease worry and bring a sense of peace that leaves you feeling rejuvenated.

At NLM I encourage staff to take time away. I believe that a high-quality work-life balance is essential for a high-performing organization. It’s important to me as a leader to accept, even support, time away from the office and away from work.

So I urge you—to the extent possible—take time and get away: a week, a weekend, even a day. You’ll return to your work with fresh perspectives and a well-rested countenance.

Remember, too, to help colleagues get away, both through your encouragement and by picking up a bit of extra work, if needed. You’ll learn something, your coworkers will benefit, and your operation will be well on its way to greatness.