Looking Back to Look Ahead

Nina Matheson’s words inspire and inform.

I recently prepared two big talks: the Matheson Lecture at the AAHSL/AAMC conference in Seattle on November 10, and the Plenary Keynote at the AMIA 2016 meeting in Chicago on November 15. The challenge—to be witty, insightful, visionary, knowledgeable, and inspirational—ABOUT DATA SCIENCE! To do so, I reached back to the words of one of the great women thinkers of our field, Nina Matheson.

I re-read Matheson and Cooper’s 1982 report on “Academic Information in the Academic Health Sciences Center” [J Med Educ 1982; 57 (10 II)]. Go back and read it again, and each time you encounter the phrase “information resource” think DATA! You will find that much of it is still relevant after 34 years.

For example:

  • The major barrier to change is often not a love of the status quo but the lack of a clear picture of where technology leads.


  • Some futurists underestimate what can be accomplished in one year and overestimate what can be accomplished in 10 years.


  • Without a vision of the goal and a concrete demonstration of feasibility, fruitful change is difficult to initiate.


  • Books will not disappear, but their uses will concentrate in those areas where their portability, relative low cost, and ease of production for stable information in incontestable.


  • As more and more information is available only to those with the financial means, fears grow about potentially disenfranchising those less affluent.

So how does this inform data science? It will take me a while to develop the same level of wisdom as Nina, so you can expect to see this list again, but here’s a start:

  • Data as an information substrate shares many features with bibliographic information—it’s just more granular—but the same challenges of how to harness, curate, store, and disseminate are still present.
  • Assuming a democratic perspective about health data—that it is potentially as useful to the scientist as the school teacher, to the clinician as the parent—will lead us to build utilities that avoid privileging the wealthy and professional over those less affluent or less educated.
  • Libraries, including our great National Library of Medicine, must ADD data to their complement of information resources, neither supplanting books and journals nor deeming them satisfactory.
  • Vision helps avoid the determinancies of the present and the over-promising of the future.

The NLM is in the process of establishing a strategic plan. Data science will form a key part of this strategic plan. Reflect on Nina’s words, and let me know what guidance they impart to you!

More Information
Nina Matheson Oral History (NLM Lister Hill Center, 2005): Abstract | Full transcript

Anticipating NLM’s 3rd Century

Seeking guidance, vision, and audacious goals.

I recently returned from the AMIA 2016 meeting in Chicago. What an exciting few days! Over 2,000 medical informatics professionals spent hours listening to developments in patient-generated data, edits to the SNOMED taxonomy, new directions in public policy, and solutions to the challenges of interoperability and decision support. The atmosphere was, as usual, filled with excitement and hard work. Logo for the American Medical Informatics AssociationBut not all hard work. The outstanding AMIA staff made sure there were celebration dinners and dance parties and first-timer receptions to attend to the social and networking aspects so important in these meetings.

Dr. Brennan gestures while standing behind a podium.
I was honored to deliver a keynote at the AMIA Annual Symposium in Chicago, November 12, 2016. (Credit: AMIA/FABPhoto-Chicago)

I was honored to present a keynote message (PDF | 5 MB) on Tuesday morning, bringing forth a perspective on NLM at present—how we are building on its history, celebrating its present, and anticipating its future. I traced our history from a bookshelf in the Army Surgeon General’s office in 1836 to a vast, worldwide network of biomedical science knowledge—the largest in the world. To me, the library represents the dynamic interplay between medicine and information, and while we’ll always maintain our commitment to archival knowledge of books, journals, and manuscripts, our future will include data and virtual information resources. I encouraged the attendees, as I will encourage readers here, to respond to the Request for Information to help us chart NLM’s third century.

We are in the midst of a strategic planning process and YOU CAN PARTICIPATE! We are looking for guidance, vision, and audacious goals addressing the role of NLM in:

  1. advancing data science, open science, and biomedical informatics;
  2. advancing biomedical discovery and translational science;
  3. supporting the public’s health: clinical systems, public health systems and services, and personal health; and
  4. building collections to support discovery and health in the 21st century.

Come along and help us craft the future of NLM and of data-driven discovery in the service of health!

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,

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)