Who’s Out There?

I write this blog for a number of reasons.

Sharing my ideas helps me clarify my thoughts. It helps me plant a seed to advance an idea or enlist your support. It also gives me the opportunity to introduce different aspects of the National Library of Medicine and its vast array of services.

And obviously, I write each post intending it to be read, but who exactly are my readers?

A coach once told me that, before I start any writing project, I must envision my readers. Here are the readers I envision right now:

Some of you are stakeholders of the Library and its products and services—researchers, clinicians, librarians, patrons, policy makers, and NLM staff members. Many of you have already shared your ideas, stimulated by some of my writings; I encourage more of you to do so!

Other readers are my loyal friends and professional colleagues who want to know what I’m up to in this phase of my life. These folks are more likely to tell me privately they’ve read the blog or they look forward to the next installment.

Still others find their way here through the power of connections and the exhortation to “read this.” That is, they might get a link to the blog post from someone who found an idea to be interesting, provocative, or maybe even wrong.

Wrong? Could there be someone who takes issue with or maybe even disagrees with a perspective I have advanced?

Of course. Probably a few someones.

I recognize that people may (and likely do) hold different perspectives on some of the ideas I’ve already advanced, such as providing information to people on the move or the sly bemusement I expressed regarding the Cold-War origins of the building. Sometimes I even hear from them. That’s why there’s space here for readers to talk back.

Bring it on, I say!

Because ultimately, the reason I write this blog is to engage with you.

What’s on your mind? You have the floor.

Leading in Transitions

Maintaining continuity in a time of change

Those of you watching the calendar have probably figured out that I’ve been on the job as the NLM Director for just about five months. My past 30 years were spent in academe, and I figured the biggest transition I would be facing was from academic to Federal employee—daunting but doable, I thought!

I had not figured on the difference between my transition from academic to fed and THE TRANSITION, the change brought about when a new president takes over for a sitting president and the reshuffling in the House and Senate that accompanies it. The logistics of a presidential transition are many—with a good percentage actually completed by October—including preparing briefing books for the incoming administration.

This task is more challenging than it might sound. Putting together a briefing book means distilling this $400 million operation down to a 3.5-page summary detailing our goals, staffing, and key actions for the near future. None of this would have been possible for a newbie without the diligence and insights of Betsy Humphreys, our NLM Deputy Director.

Beyond NLM, it seems to me that the NIH and the entire Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is experiencing a mixture of business-as-usual, excitement about change, and curiosity about where a new DHHS Secretary and a whole new administration (with 4,000 new political appointees) will take us.

So what is my role in all of this?

My primary job is to ensure adequate resources for the men and women who work here to create and manage our products and services (such as PubMed, the Common Data Elements Repository, the UMLS, PubChem, ClinVAR, TOXNET, etc.), preserve our historical collections, conduct research, and develop new ways to document clinical trials. I also need to be an advocate for the NLM in NIH-wide discussions about how to foster discovery and support clinical practice in a time of uncertain direction. I must be mindful of my own tolerance for ambiguity, being sure to listen to the concerns of staff and colleagues, respond with confidence, and provide reassurance in a realistic manner.

No leadership job comes with a crystal ball, and my personal opinions about how the future will pan out do not serve as a guide for action. What does guide me is the wisdom arising from the strong NLM leadership team, formed prior to my arrival and now pivoting to guide me as I lead the Library not only in anticipating our third century but also in transitioning to a new administration. The NLM enjoys broad respect and acceptance, so I expect our core mission to persist, but frankly, I too am curious about what the future holds.

What do you think this transition will bring us?

One NLM

Weaving together all NLM resources to meet the challenges of the future

The strategic planning process is in full swing here. Our RFI is active for a few more weeks and getting a lot of attention from individuals and organizations. We’re seeking stakeholder input through four planning panels that will meet during the spring. Those panels will look at NLM’s role in the following key areas:

  1. Advancing biomedical discovery and translational science / Chair: Arthur Levine, MD, University of Pittsburgh
  2. Advancing data science, open science, and biomedical informatics / Chair: Russ Altman, MD, PhD, Stanford University
  3. Supporting the public’s health: clinical systems, public health systems and services, and personal health / Chair: Suzanne Bakken, PhD, RN, Columbia University
  4. Building collections to support discovery and health in the 21st century / Chair: Patricia Thibodeau, MLS, MBA, Duke University

We have also begun internal functional audits to examine the investment and impact in activities critical to our mission, such as public outreach and curation of the biomedical literature.

I have been encouraging our 1700 men and women to think of the strategic planning process as building a blueprint for “One NLM,” that is, to envision the entire NLM efforts aligned and integrated towards a common vision: the National Library of Medicine, in toto, as we prepare for our third century.

One NLM weaves the work of each division into a common whole.

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–for example, the Lister Hill Center for Biomedical Communications, Library Operations, or Specialized Information Services–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.

So why do we need One NLM?

Achieving excellence as a resource for discovery and science demands that we efficiently leverage the work of each division toward common goals. Additionally, One NLM encourages sharing the expertise found in any one division across all our efforts. Finally, the idea of One NLM entreats us to bring together all the Library’s resources to meet the key challenges of the future across biomedical knowledge collection, curation, and dissemination–ensuring a talented workforce, enabling every staff member to work Six threads of different colors pass through the eye of a single needleat the top of his or her skill set, creating collections that accelerate discovery and address global health needs, and anticipating (and resolving!) the health information challenges of the future.

Take a minute to let me know how this One NLM theme strikes you, and how you think we can use this unifying concept to ensure the excellence of the NLM into our third century.

Musings on the Mezzanine

The history of this soaring space

A couple of you have asked about the title of my blog. A mezzanine? Am I working in a restored theater or something?

Since I’m new to the place myself, I thought a bit of research might be in order. As the minutes of a 1958 NLM Board of Regents meeting reveal, “mezzanine” is the term that has always been used for the second floor of the main National Library of Medicine, Building 38, where the Office of the Director and NLM administrative offices are located.

The history of the Mezzanine is interesting.

“Characteristic of the age we live in, particular consideration had to be given to bomb blast effect where it might influence structural design.”
Walter Kilham, Jr. | 1961, Bull Med Libr Assoc

When the Philadelphia firm of O’Connor and Kilham was drawing up the blueprints, they had serious concerns. The late 1950s were marked by Cold War tensions, and our beautiful geometric roof was put in place so that, in the event of an attack, it would collapse, creating a seal over our vast collection, housed on three underground levels. This fear is also the reason for our foot-thick Indiana limestone walls and other fortifications.

It might not be common to build a library that can withstand a bomb blast, but the architects pulled it off with style.

With a big open space called the Rotunda forming its core, the Mezzanine is graced by a large ring of windows under the roof. At times, geese fly by, their loud honking distracting us momentarily from our computers. I’m told that during winter storms, it feels like we’re inside a snow globe. We also have a 15-foot model of the DNA double helix, suspended from the ceiling, which is simply beautiful.

The library space below, housing casual seating and small exhbitions, opens above to the soaring expanse of the rotunda, featuring a large ring of lights and a model DNA strand hanging in the center.
The view from the Rotunda looking up toward the Mezzanine highlights the double-stranded model of DNA which hangs in the center. (Credit: Stephen Greenberg / NLM)

I invite any of you who are in the DC metropolitan area to come and see the Mezzanine. (You can even take a tour of the Library.)

This building opened its doors to the public in 1962. We remain open to the public today. And now we are building an open-access library, where PubMed Central‘s 4.1 million articles are used by over one million people every day.

I’m honored to be one of the more recent occupants of an office on the storied Mezzanine.

As we work on strategic planning for the next decade and beyond, all of us on the Mezzanine and beyond want to make sure you get the medical information you need, when and how you need it.

And we invite your thoughts on how we can best provide that service. Please share your comments and your audacious goals for NLM’s future.

Welcome to My New Blog!

NLM is an amazing place.

I invite you to join me as I share my impressions as the new Director of the world’s largest biomedical library, the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

NLM is an amazing place. We have technology covered, with electronic resources that deliver trillions of bytes of data to millions of users around the globe each day, but we also have a vast and varied collection, with items dating back to the 11th century. Many of our historical holdings have been digitized for public use.

We also have a remarkable staff. Not only am I busy learning the names and roles of many new colleagues at the Library and all of the National Institutes of Health, but I have submerged myself in learning about the Library’s long and deep roots (back to 1836), eyeing our impressive arc of information innovation, and considering the threshold we’re standing on, as we prepare to invite the world at large to help us anticipate our third century. What will that look like? What resources will we need? How will we meet the information needs of the public, where they are, as quickly as possible, and in the desired format? Because our public includes scientists to school teachers, parents to physicians, the answers to these questions will be different depending on one’s perspective. It will be our challenge to knit them together into a coherent, exciting, and achievable vision.

I hope you’ll join me for these fascinating times, and that you’ll consider this blog the perfect space for some two-way dialogue. Along the way, as I acquire new information about NLM programs, services, people, and places, I promise to share them all with you. (Remind me to tell you about the time I actually got locked inside the Library, after official hours. I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something.)

To your good health,
Patti

Share your thoughts

Dr. Brennan has her left hand on a large book and her right hand raised while looking at Dr. Collins to her right. Her sister holds the book.
My swearing-in ceremony at the library on Monday, September 12, 2016. Dr. Francis Collins, NIH Director, administers the oath of office, and my sister, Dr. Jean F. McGuire, holds the commemorative copy of the US Constitution used for the event. (Photo: Ernie Branson/NIH)