(Re)Engineering the National Library of Medicine Building

Guest post by Dianne Babski, Associate Director for Library Operations and Patrick Casey, NLM Building Engineer

NLM, the largest biomedical library in the world, is housed in Buildings 38 and 38A on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland. As we head into our third century of existence, we are guided by our ten year NLM Strategic Plan, which outlines a vision for NLM as a platform for biomedical discovery and data-powered health, integrating streams of complex and interconnected research outputs that can be readily translated into scientific insights, clinical care, public health practices, and personal wellness.

An important step in realizing this future is to create a physical environment to better position NLM to fulfill the goals of its strategic plan. In Fall 2017, we engaged with NIH facilities management, architects, and historic preservation specialists to explore ways to better utilize our space, support research, and provide a progressive and collaborative work environment. Through an iterative and cooperative process, including engagement with and feedback from our many stakeholders, the needs expressed became the drivers for the recommendations and plans made for the proposed future of NLM.

Little did we know when we embarked on this extensive renovation that the project would take a twist – a global pandemic. In some ways, the pandemic provided an opportunity to recognize the extent of work that could still continue with many staff working remotely.

As we enter the first phase of the renovation project, that involves the Mezzanine level and 1st floor in Building 38, I thought it would be helpful to learn more about the project from the perspective of the person overseeing it – Patrick Casey, NLM’s building engineer. I had an opportunity to sit down with Patrick to ask some questions and get his thoughts on the project.


What have you found most interesting about the NLM renovation compared to other projects you’ve worked on?

Figure 1: The exterior view of the National Library of Medicine and Lister Hill Center.

NLM has a lot more people and building space than I would have assumed. The main building space (Building 38) is unique given its historical context and details. It was built in a very different era, and this renovation project is attempting to reutilize the space in a more modern way.

The main building was built in the 1950s in a construction fashion that is not done anymore, and it’s a building constructed using a lot of concrete. I’ve heard many stories about the construction of the building, one of which is that it was built as a bomb shelter to enable it to withstand a bomb attack to protect the collections.

What makes the NLM building renovation necessary and distinctive?

Figure 2: NLM’s Main Reading Room (before renovations).

This renovation is necessary to make better use of existing space, create new space for growing research programs, ensure the integrity of NLM’s collections, and support the future work of NLM. The breadth of the project is a treat to work on because there is never a shortage of things to do.

All of the various projects at NLM have unique characteristics. NLM facilities house the historical collections, a 24-hour data center, and a 10-story administrative facility supported by several stories below ground.

While the main building was built in the 1950s, Building 38A was added in the 1970s. While newer than the original Library building, Building 38A is also showing its age and “time stamp” from that era of building design.

What have you had to learn as part of this project?

Figure 3: NLM’s Main Reading Room (during renovations).

This is NLM’s first major renovation in 50 years, and we’ve had to learn a lot about some of the interesting challenges that exist with the building, including unique climate control concerns that need to be considered and addressed—especially on levels where historical collections are stored.

The project management process is constantly keeping us on our toes because there are a lot of things to plan. We do not typically have much down time.

What are you most excited to see at the end of the renovation?

I look forward to seeing how the new renovation does the building justice in terms of maintaining its unique qualities while providing staff with a modernized, 21st century work environment to facilitate collaboration, and creating a welcoming environment for visitors and patrons. I am excited to see the spaces open and ready for people to use and move into. That said, work will continue after this major renovation project is complete. Building system upgrades needed to improve environmental conditions will continue to be addressed. Tackling these improvements will introduce its own set of challenges, and I look forward to it.


We are very lucky to have an engineer on staff to help NLM oversee these major renovations, keep us informed of what’s going on, and help us continue to modernize and improve our work areas as we build for the vision of our future!

We would love to hear your tips or lessons learned if you went through renovations!

Ms. Babski is responsible for overall management of one of NLM’s largest divisions with more than 450 staff who provide health information services to a global audience of health care professionals, researchers, administrators, students, historians, patients, and the public

Mr. Casey is the NLM Building Engineer. He has worked for the federal government for nearly 19 years. Prior to working at NLM, he worked in various capacities at the Navy and Marine Corps working in facilities renovation and construction programs

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?  

Friends of the National Library of Medicine: A Convening, Educating, and Empowering Force Supporting the Mission of NLM

Guest post by Glen P. Campbell, Chair of the Board of Directors, Friends of the National Library of Medicine

Since our founding in 1986 as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, the Friends of the National Library of Medicine (FNLM), have been honored to promote and support the National Library of Medicine (NLM). Our members, a coalition of individuals representing medical associations and societies, hospitals, health science libraries, corporations, and foundations, are dedicated to helping us accomplish our mission.

FNLM Mission and Goals

To promote and enhance the mission of the NLM, the FNLM convenes and celebrates thought leadership in data science, informatics, and health care communications to:

  • Advance trusted resources for data-driven research and health information
  • Promote meaningful engagement across health communities and biomedical communications enterprises
  • Build the workforce of tomorrow

In partnership with NLM, we work to achieve mutual goals that accelerate discovery, advance health in the U.S. and globally, and empower individuals with trusted health information.

Increasing public awareness and use of NLM, and supporting its many programs in research, education, and public service is our top priority. Members of the FNLM Board represent constituencies across the country and, more recently, globally. They serve without compensation—giving freely of their time and expertise.

Taking a Fresh Look

With the fifth anniversary of the appointment of Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD, as director of NLM, our Board thought it a good idea to take a fresh look at our strategic plan to ensure that we remain fully aligned with the 2017-2027 NLM Strategic Plan implemented under Dr. Brennan’s dynamic leadership. Dr. Brennan, along with the NLM Leadership team, are meeting the extraordinary challenges of the 21st century with an ambitious plan to accelerate discovery through data-driven research, expand and reach NLM constituents in new ways, and ensure that NLM’s workforce is equipped with the tools and skills required to thrive in a data-powered world.

The FNLM Strategic Task Force, under the direction of Douglas Fridsma, MD, PhD, and John Glaser, PhD, consulted with our FNLM Board, many of whom are Library users, and colleagues at NLM, and the FNLM Board approved a set of initiatives that will continue to support NLM’s Strategic Plan through two categories of initiatives: programs and events and stakeholder forums. A reorganization of our committee structure will support their successful implementation.

Expanding Education

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the FNLM’s Conference Committee, chaired by Andrew Balas, MD, PhD, Vice President, FNLM, took our conference program virtual with a series of workshops aligned with the NLM Strategic Plan. Workshops included Changing Publication Practices in the COVID-19 Era, Real World Data and Electronic Health Records in Clinical Research, and Artificial Intelligence to Accelerate Discovery. The FNLM Board approved an expansion of these workshops under a revised Education Committee to enhance the workshops with an even sharper focus on the Library’s leadership in data-powered health.  

The FNLM regularly convenes a group of publisher representatives responsible for publishing biomedical content. This Publisher’s Forum represents organizations that use a variety of publishing models including open access, subscription access, for profit and non-profit and are international, regional, or U.S. based. The group meets with the NLM leadership team and colleagues to discuss issues and concerns of common interest. The goal is to increase the understanding of how to work together as effectively as possible to bring quality health and scientific information to scientists, researchers, clinicians, and patients.

Our Board also approved new forums for medical librarians, biotechnology organizations, and NLM Fellows. The increasing interactions between NLM and among these constituencies call for even closer engagement, and the FNLM is uniquely positioned to facilitate this. 

I have only touched briefly on the significant work done by the FNLM Strategic Task Force and Board to ensure that our plan is well aligned with that of NLM. Personally, supporting the transformation of the NLM from a passive to active player in the global health care enterprise is thrilling. Our work continues, but we will be hard pressed to keep pace with Dr. Brennan and her leadership team, whose fast pace is transforming the Library day by day.

What’s Next

One final note: the FNLM’s annual Awards Gala, which celebrates and honors individuals whose contributions advanced public health, medicine, and health communications, was postponed in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope you will join our next event when we bring together those involved in biomedical research and health care to recognize their support for the extraordinary work of the NLM.

Interested in learning more about our work to enhance the Library’s profile? We encourage you to visit us at FNLM.org.

Glen P. Campbell is the Chair of the Friends of the National Library of Medicine Board of Directors. He has served in this capacity for more than 10 years.

Reflect, Reimagine, Reenergize TOGETHER

Guest post by Patricia Flatley Brennan, Director, NLM; Dianne Babski, Associate Director for Library Operations, NLM; and Amanda J. Wilson, Chief of the Office of Engagement and Training, NLM.

Welcome to NLM @ MLA ’21 vConference! This year, for the Medical Library Association (MLA) virtual meeting, we organized NLM’s activities around three themes:

  1. Reflect on the impact of the past year,
  2. Reimagine our work to make what we do better, and
  3. Reenergize by reconnecting with NLM colleagues and embracing the new normal! 

This year offered many opportunities to pause and reflect. We were struck by the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global response of lockdowns, personal adoption of public health measures, and more than 1.7 billion vaccine doses already administered worldwide. Our reflections led us to a reaffirmation of the importance of medical libraries as a source of trusted health information and the critical need for work-life balance in everyone’s lives. Like others around the world, we looked on in horror and dismay at repeated episodes of violence and injustice inflicted upon communities of color. We hope that our partners around the country will join the momentum surrounding the NIH UNITE initiative to end structural racism and racial inequalities in the health research enterprise.

The maximum telework posture of NLM and many other industries prompted reimagining our work life now and in the future. We structured many of our NLM @ MLA ’21 presentations to share our experiences of working at a distance, video conferencing, and providing library services during a time when the physical doors of libraries are closed.

We hope that the opportunity to gather in spirit, rather than in person, brings the reenergizing atmosphere that often comes with greeting old friends and meeting new colleagues. We hope you’ll take advantage of the opportunities to gather around professional conversations and social engagement.

NLM at the Medical Library Association 2021 vConference

NLM’s participation at the MLA ’21 vConference began on May 17th and will continue through May 27th. One of the advantages of a virtual symposium is that you’re not restricted to viewing a session once – all NLM sessions will be available online after May 27th.

NLM began this year’s conference with a full day symposium introducing the 2021-2026 Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM). The day started with a celebration of NNLM accomplishments to date, particularly over the last 5 years. This session attracted more than 250 attendees who reflected on where NLM has been. For example, do you know the highest number of regions that the NNLM ever had? Was it 9, 11, or 50? Or, how much outreach funding NNLM awarded to communities in the last year? Over or under $1 million? This session also provided an overview of how the Network has been reimagined for the 2021-2026 cooperative agreement, and is being reenergized though exciting and innovative programming and projects. Find these answers and what else is in store for the Network on the NNLM @ MLA day page!

During last week’s dedicated exhibit time, we hosted 33 one-hour Meet the Experts sessions, involving over 50 speakers covering a wide range of topics including data science practice, PubMed and PubMed Central, tools for scholarly publishing, the 2020-2021 Associate Fellows cohort and projects, intramural training at NLM, consumer health resources, health data standards, and many more – whew! The “NNLM Reading Club: A Vehicle for Starting Health Conversations” took top marks for being the most popular session.

We also provided special highlights of NLM’s response to COVID-19 in the Exhibitor Solution Showcase. NLM’s Dina Demner-Fushman, MD, PhD, Valerie Florance, PhD, Yanli Wang, MD, PhD, Amanda Wilson, MSLS, and Robin Taylor, MLIS, presented on topics such as TREC-COVID, a competition applying national language processing to resolve challenges related to COVID-19; the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics projects designed to speed COVID-19 testing, and to identify new ways of detecting COVID-19 in people and in the environment (think of an electronic nose or waste water sampling); the Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 Infection Initiative, now known as ReCOVer; and how common data elements are making the data acquired through COVID-19 studies harmonized and available for researchers in the future. 

Teresa Zayas Cabán, PhD, NLM’s Assistant Director for Policy Development, presented updates and priorities from NLM and NIH at the Legislative Update session, and, not-for-profit Stop Foodborne Illness executive, Mitzi D. Baum, MS, delivered remarks on the topic of public health and food safety as the keynote speaker for this year’s Joseph Leiter NLM/MLA Lectureship. You can take a deep dive into the NLM@MLA’21 website where you can find links to the 2021 Leiter Lecture recording; NLM and NNLM On-Demand Presentations, Lightning Talks; Immersion Sessions; biographies for NLM and NNLM staff participating in the Meet the Experts sessions; and more!

As we close out our participation in the MLA ’21 vConference, our last don’t miss events are:

  • Take a Break with Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan on May 26 at 6 pm (CT). Join Dr. Brennan for a signature trivia evening break. Join Us!
  • The ever-popular, annual NLM Update, May 27 at 10:15 am (CT), this year featuring NLM Director Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD; Associate Director for Library Operations Dianne Babski; and Acting Director, Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications, Olivier Bodenreider, MD, PhD.

Reflect. Reimagine. Reenergize.

As we reflect on our experience at the MLA ’21 vConference, our interactions with colleagues has provided even more insight to reimagine our work to make what we do better, and reenergize as we embrace the new normal!

Which element of this year’s theme do you relate to most? Why?

(left to right)
Dianne Babski, Associate Director for Library Operations at NLM
Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD, NLM Director
Amanda J. Wilson, Chief, Office of Engagement and Training at NLM