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NLM Update - Amidst Big Changes, Some Things Remain the Same

Note: the National Library of Medicine (NLM) update presentation was recorded on video; see the website for access to video, which should be available to you if you attended either in person or remotely.


In her closing remarks, Betsy Humphreys, Acting Director of NLM, stated that while some "big changes" are around us, some things remain the same, such as the NLM's mission. I don't know the NLM's mission statement off-hand, but, if I had to guess the mission of our planet's esteemed flagship medical library, based on its work as I know it, I would say it is to serve the public with high-quality, reliable health information and metadata, in ways that are as dynamic and as accessible as possible. I believe this purpose is evidenced in their work, despite the changing and evolving nature of "dynamic" and "accessible". I find myself thinking that while the meaning of "public" was originally the people of the United States (the people whose taxpayer dollars make U.S. federal programs possible), these days we have a beautiful mosaic of increasingly-connected publics that the NLM serves, from all across the globe.

Throughout the presentation, speakers highlighted the contributions of the Canadian piece of this mosaic, in honor of our lovely host country. For me, this was my first time attending an international conference, and I deeply appreciated the multi-cultural representation in the attendees and speakers; so, it was nice to see that reflected in the NLM speakers' comments -- for example, Joyce Backus shared the fact that the journals indexed in MEDLINE come from 85 countries and are written in 40 languages, though almost all provide abstracts in English.

Betsy Humphreys, Joyce Backus (Division of Library Operations), and Stacy Arnesen (Disaster Information Management Research Center) each spoke to some of the biggest changes they see at the NLM, the biggest of which are, in my opinion, the new Director and the change in how Regional Medical Libraries (RMLs) are funded. Betsy also gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the process MEDLINE indexers use to enter articles into MEDLINE.

Sandy gave us an overview of NLM's work with Disaster Response, including a fun little virtual tour of a virtual Incident Command Center in NLM's location in Second Life. Resources in the command center include: canned searches of PubMed, the Disaster Lit database (grey literature is indexed here),, genetic information - e.g. virus variation page, MedlinePlus, free access to relevant literature (NLM works with publishers in times of major incidents), the People Locator - for family reunification, and more. The Disaster Lit database itself was formed after the anthrax incident in 2001 -- a clear example of the way libraries respond to the changing world we live in.

See Gabe Rios' tweet for a picture of the slide describing the kinds of emergencies and disasters NLM has supported with information.


We saw the shining faces of past and future NLM Associate Fellows -- see the current Fellows here. The audience thanked the libraries who have served 5-year terms as RMLs, and welcomed the new libraries entering into "cooperative agreements" with the NLM. Lastly, we thanked those from the NLM who were able to be present in Toronto, as opposed to working hard back in Bethesda, Maryland, USA.

As for the indexers in particular, hard at work back in Bethesda, I can't claim to have understood Betsy Humphreys' indexing overview well enough to describe it properly; if you're curious to see her behind-the-scenes look at this vital NLM service, I recommend accessing the video recording online to watch her talk. I did understand enough that I can ask you all -- did you know that indexers do not read the entire article? (I knew this already thanks to my very wise library school professor, Dr Judith Jablonski, who was teaching at Pittsburgh years ago when I studied there!) And did you know the indexers aren't necessarily librarians? (I had forgotten that bit from library school.) Some are librarians but they can also be subject experts, such as pharmacy-degreed people who index pharmacy journals, or nurses indexing nursing journals, etc. Betsy also mentioned that the average number of MESH terms given for a specific journal title is 1100 out of 2700; PLOS One has been the exception, using 2700 of the 2700 MESH terms.


It was educational to hear Betsy Humphreys describe and other research tracking efforts, and legislation, especially as she positioned parts of her talk as responses to Dr Ben Goldacre's thesis from Sunday (when he gave a talk in which he, as a transparency advocate, criticized how lacking the current standards are for tracking and publishing research -- I highly recommend watching the recording of his talk, Plenary #2, if you were unable to attend in person, and perhaps even if you *were* able to attend but missed some of his points).

A new NLM Director Patricia "Patty" Brennan has been selected -- see the NLM news release here. Although Patty was unable to come today, she extended her greetings and Betsy Humphreys stated that the Seattle meeting is already on Patty's calendar. Betsy said Patty is outgoing, fun to know and to work with. YouTube videos verify that she is engaging. Betsy says Patty is " a great choice to lead NLM at this time". A word cloud that Betsy made from the titles of Patty's peer-reviewed publications shows that Patty has been patient-centered since "long before this became cool." She has worked on a Safe Home Simulator system, which is a virtual reality training tool to train patients in safe procedures in the captured environment of their real home, before they leave the hospital. The aim is to lower readmission by improving discharge training. Patty has been working with patients/caregivers and general public for a long time, and was this first recipient of an Intel Corporation grant from the Health & Life Sciences Group. She received the grant when Eric Dishman was at Intel; he is now the new and first Director of the new NIH Precision Medicine Cohort. This new program aims to enlist over 1 million volunteers in the establishment of a longitudinal database comprising all kinds of data, with strict security and privacy, to support precision medicine research; this study aims to discover, with more precision, which treatments help which people. Betsy Humphreys believes that librarians have a huge potential to help, supporting everyone from participants to researchers. 

Lastly, there were a couple questions from the audience, including a request for clarification about the new RML funding structure. Betsy Humphreys had said earlier that "managing a grant is more familiar than managing a federal contract" and there was an "opportunity to partner with other grant recipients." During her answering the audience question, Betsy gave the example of CETI grant recipients possibly being able to collaborate more easily with RMLs now that both will be under the grant structure. The contract structure had presented some barriers. Another question was about adding Conflict Of Interest metadata into PubMed/MEDLINE; Betsey Humpreys stated that the NLM is looking in to this possibility as long as adding that metadata will not negatively affect the accuracy of searches.

Overall, the NLM presentation described how NLM continues to be responsive to current needs of the public -- not only in the U.S., but across the globe.

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