NLM’s Library Operations is Reimagining to Better Serve You

This blog was authored by staff who serve on the National Library of Medicine (NLM) Library Operations (LO) Strategies Working Group.

NLM is nearing its 200th anniversary in 2036, and NLM’s Library Operations (LO) is reflecting on its continuing mandate to acquire, organize, preserve, and disseminate biomedical information. LO is one of NLM’s largest divisions and comprises over 400 talented staff committed to furthering NLM as the world’s largest biomedical library and a leader in research in computational health informatics. We are re-envisioning our products, operations, and services for NLM’s diverse users around the world.

Last year, we created a “3Cs” framework—Collect, Curate, and Connect—to describe the work we do.

Each component represents the critical work LO performs, but the components do not function in isolation. They are interconnected and move together to achieve operational success.

Illustration shows 3 gears in the middle of various sizes. The gear on the left is titled “Collect” with text below that says acquire and preserve unique and trusted collection of biomedical information. The gear at the bottom is titled “Connect” with text below that says link our global audience to biomedical data and resources to make informed health decisions. The gear on the right is titled “Curate” with text below that says make biomedical information findable through data normalization, metadata, and data standards.
Embracing a Future of Data-Driven Discovery

Our 2021–2036 Long-Range Plan is strategic, thoughtful, and forward-thinking. It will address the challenges that come with the accelerated pace of changing technology, the rise and spread of health misinformation, evolving user expectations, and need for equal and inclusive access to unbiased information.

In support of the three pillars of the NLM Strategic Plan, LO will work collaboratively across NLM and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to build a data-driven workforce and with global partners to ensure our work accelerates biomedical discovery while reaching as many people as possible.

The five goals of our long-range plan will enhance LO’s mission and prepare us for the future as NLM reimagines its work post-pandemic and moves into its third century.

Illustration shows a 5-step process with numbers on top, description of  steps in the middle, and simple illustrations at the bottom. Step 1 says create a modernized organizational structure. Step 2 says unify and transform NLM collections. Step 3 says support and promote the use of health data standards and terminologies. Step 4 says customer design experience support. Step 5 says know and equitably engage our users.

Goal 1: Create a Modernized Organizational Structure. We will focus internally on our organizational structure, work processes, and the workforce expertise necessary to meet the future needs and expectations of our global users.

Goal 2: Unify and Transform NLM Collections. We will redefine and manage NLM’s diverse collection of both historical and modern content as “one collection,” valued by the world for the knowledge it holds to advance data-driven discovery. We will accelerate digitization, increase digital acquisitions, improve the discoverability of collections data, and continue investing in the physical collection space for future preservation.

Goal 3: Support and Promote the Use of Health Data Standards & Terminologies. We will position LO as a centralized leader in the production of and access to the terminologies, policies, data, and tools needed for wide-scale public use and research.

Goal 4: Provide Customer Design and Experience Support. We will support customers’ needs and translate them into product development and life cycle management by putting the principles of digital government strategy into practice.

Goal 5: Know and Equitably Engage Our Users. We will engage stakeholders to facilitate access, delivery, and dissemination of NLM’s collection and trusted NLM/NIH health information resources through community-driven engagement, training, and capacity-building programs.

The first phase of implementation for all five goals is currently underway, and we plan to continuously measure and assess our progress, evolve as needed, and continue to engage our stakeholders.

Our Commitment to Our Users

The interrelated 3Cs and five goals will allow us to continue to collaborate across our institution to serve NLM’s diverse users, enhance our role as a national library, maintain stewardship of the world’s largest biomedical collection, and serve as a key NIH institute. LO is committed to our continuous improvement, innovation, and data-based decision-making to support biomedical research discovery and integrity. Our core values of user focus, service, knowledge sharing, quality, and trustworthiness continue to serve as our beacon to confidently deliver on the goals outlined in this bold 15-year plan.

Libraries continue to evolve as their users’ needs and expectations change. How are you responding to the changing needs of your users?

Top Row (left to right):
Dianne Babski, Associate Director for Library Operations
Amanda J. Wilson, Deputy Associate Director for Library Operations
Jennifer L. Marill, Chief of the Technical Services Division
Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, Chief of the History of Medicine Division

Bottom Row (left to right):
Margaret A. McGhee, Chief of the Public Services Division
Deborah Lockett-Jordan, Senior Administrative Officer for Library Operations
David Gillikin, Chief of the Bibliographic Services Division

Engaging with Purpose: Libraries as Healing Spaces

Over the past month, students across the country started their first day of school—it’s a day of excitement, promise, and the hope of new growth. For some students, including those who were at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, it’s a challenging time—how to reach for the future without the pain of the past. Importantly, libraries help!

Libraries know the importance of engaging with their communities, and they know how to do this. Over the summer, El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde, Texas, became a center of healing for the community—a place to bring people together in times of sorrow, as well as times of joy. I urge you to watch this news segment about how the El Progreso Memorial Library helped support its community in need and to think about the special role that libraries play in strengthening communities.

Through our Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM), NLM supports member libraries’ responses within communities around the country to address their health information needs. Our primary goal for engagement through the NNLM is to open a pathway between the community and NLM to make sure our resources are available, accessible, usable, and relevant to them, and to learn from them how they can best access our resources.

We can’t lift up communities without engaging with them, and we can’t be everything to communities. But by our engagement, we co-define the rules of engagement and show how what we do supports what they need.

The story of the El Progreso Memorial Library’s response to the needs of the Uvalde community inspired me in a way that I had not expected. Many times, the “rules of engagement” begin with a clear delineation of who we are and what our business is, essentially letting us step into a community with what we already know how to do. Suppose we started off at a different place—the place that engages with the community by beginning with the question, “What do you need?”

Now, starting with this question does not require us to be all things to all people—this would be foolhardy and frankly not something that would help us be true to our stewardship of the public’s federal investment. But… by starting with the question—“What do you need?”—perhaps we would organize our resources in ways we have yet to envision that make them even more accessible and responsive for those communities. This effort aligns with the second goal of the NLM Strategic Plan to engage with new people in new ways.

And maybe we would learn new things or more effective ways to reach communities. Libraries have a special space in the panoply of communities—we bring a wide range of resources to a wide range of people. Engaging with openness brings us closer to those who need us to bring those resources to them!

Please look around at the communities you are part of and that you serve. Think of how you reach into those communities and of new ways to ask, “What do you need?” to better understand how to serve them!

A New Frontier: The Impact of a 1959 Board Meeting

Guest blog by Ken Koyle, MA, Deputy Chief of the History of Medicine Division (HMD) at the NIH National Library of Medicine. This post celebrates the important work performed by our archival professionals and the archival collections held by the library, from which the source material was drawn, as NLM celebrates International Archives Week #IAW2022.

In November 1959, when construction of NLM’s current building at NIH was still underway and digital computing was in its infancy, the NLM Board of Regents convened on the third floor of the Old Red Brick building for a demonstration of the indexing process. When Board Chairman Michael E. DeBakey, MD, asked if computer technology could be used in indexing, NLM Director Col. Frank B. Rogers, MD, was ready with an answer. Dr. Rogers, clearly interested in the emerging technology of automated data processing (ADP), described an article by Robert S. Ledley, DDS, in that month’s issue of Science and noted that Dr. Ledley was already contracted with NLM to report on using computers in indexing.

Black-and-white photo of Dr. Rogers leaning on a stack of books with bookshelves in background.
Dr. Frank Rogers at NLM, 1962.

Dr. Rogers was instrumental in NLM’s first explorations of automated processes and had a clear vision of the potential of electronic computing, including how it could improve efficiency at NLM, but his optimism was tempered by prescient realism. Dr. Rogers recognized—and conveyed to the Board—that the potential benefits of ADP would require a commensurate investment of staff time and labor. “We should not forget that ‘automatically’ means ‘because we told it to do so beforehand,’ and this in itself may turn out to be quite a trick.” Dr. Rogers made it clear that the computer age would bring a change in work, but not necessarily a reduction in work. “Remarkable as the capacity of the computer may be for sustaining a long sequence of operations, it is nevertheless ultimately only the end-phase of that still longer sequence which must include as a first phase the human labor of input.”

Acknowledging the upfront labor investment in ADP was only part of Dr. Rogers’ insight. He also explained that the human work was not only substantial and necessary, but also incredibly complex: “The instructions [for a computer] are a thousand times more detailed, for the simplest task, than those required to be given to the . . . clerk.” Unleashing computers’ potential would require staff to think in new ways, conceive new methods of organizing data, and embark on a new journey of continuous learning and professional development.

Black-and-white photo of members of the NLM Board of Regents posing for a photo. Four members sit behind a table stacked with papers. 13 members stand in the background. Dr. Rogers is featured on the far right.
Dr. Frank Rogers (far right) with the NLM Board of Regents meeting in the “Old Red Brick,” 1957.

Along with the challenges of training staff to work with ADP equipment came the interminable problem of cost. Much as today’s public institutions are grappling with the costs of cloud computing, digitization, and increasing storage requirements, Dr. Rogers had to balance the potential benefits with the considerable costs of computer equipment. The type of computer necessary to realize Dr. Rogers’ vision would cost about $1.5 million in 1960—98% of NLM’s total budget of $1,566,000.

Undeterred, Dr. Rogers found an answer to the funding problem by collaborating with another agency that would benefit from the increased processing speed of scientific literature that the envisioned system could provide: the National Heart Institute. They provided the initial funding, NLM did the legwork, and in 1963, the new MEDLARS computer went into service. Dr. Rogers had realized his vision of bringing automated indexing to NLM. As Surgeon General Luther Terry said at the Board meeting in April 1961, “If any institution ever stood on the borderland of a new frontier it is the National Library of Medicine.”

Computer operators working with the Honeywell 800 mainframe computer, originally acquired by NLM in the 1960s.

Dr. Rogers was very clear about the issues of cost, labor, and expectations in his 1960 presentation to the Board, including his overarching concern about balancing NLM’s core mission with these potential new directions:

[The] purpose of the Library is not to operate a particular machine system, however great an acrobatic achievement that might be in itself. It is not to publish and distribute a particular index in a particular way, however ingenious and successful that operation may be deemed to be. It is not even just to be a good library, however great and distinguished that library may be. It is rather, by virtue of being a library, to use every available bibliothecal means to promote awareness of and access to the subject content of recorded medical knowledge, to the end that the science of medicine will advance and prosper.

More than 60 years later, NLM still holds fast to that purpose. As stated in our statutory mission and reiterated in our current strategic plan, we are here “to assist the advancement of medical and related sciences and to aid in the dissemination and exchange of scientific and other information important to the progress of medicine and to the public health.” Our continued pioneering work in data science is just one way we accomplish that mission.

Mr. Koyle joined HMD in the NLM Division of Library Operations in 2012. Before joining NLM, Ken served as a medical evacuation helicopter pilot and a historian in the U.S. Army. He is the co-editor with Jeffrey Reznick of Images of America: U.S. National Library of Medicine, a collaborative work with HMD staff.

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