A log cabin with a small satellite antenna mounted in the grass next to it.

Martin Cummings and Transformative Change at NLM

By John Rees

In His Own Words: Martin Cummings and Transformative Change at NLM

Three men in suits stand in front of a building.
Martin Cummings, Lister Hill, and Joseph Volker at the University of Alabama’s Lister Hill Library dedication in 1971
Courtesy of University of Alabama at Birmingham Archives

The Archives and Modern Manuscripts Program recently completed a digitization project that illustrates how many of NLM’s historically transformative programs and services got their start and how NLM’s then-Director Martin Cummings navigated the appropriations process and his relationships with Congressional leaders.

Dr. Cheryl Dee (San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science and Florida State University School of Library and Information Services) and Dr. Martin Cummings (NLM Director 1964–1983) together conceived of a project to broaden the understanding of NLM history during the 1960s through the 1980s by digitizing Cummings’s annual testimonies to the Senate and Congressional Appropriations Committees. Appended to the Senate testimonies are interviews between Dr. Dee and Dr. Cummings where he reflects on his Senate testimonies and describes how he really got things done in order to transform NLM’s mission. Together these testimonies and interviews provide an interesting window into the business of government. As Dr. Cummings once told me, the official record isn’t the real story; it’s what we talk about behind closed doors that really counts, he added with a wry smile.

Formation of the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications

The National Library of Medicine building with the high rise Lister Hill Center under construction behind it.
Lister Hill Center building under construction.
National Library of Medicine #A017563

In 1968, Congress passed Public Law 90-456 establishing the Lister Hill Center for Biomedical Communications. Its purpose was to “to adapt existing techniques and develop new computer and communication technologies for incorporation into operational biomedical communications networks in support of health care delivery, education, and research.” Construction funding did not materialize until 1973 and the building was dedicated in 1980. Sen. Hill was a lifelong friend of NLM and all medical libraries.  Dr. Cummings recalled the day: “The Lister Hill Center was dedicated on May 22, 1980. Senator Lister Hill was present arriving in a wheelchair. Speeches honoring Senator Hill were given by distinguished Senators and other dignitaries. The speakers honored his contributions to the advancement of health and to the United States. The speeches were inspiring.

Satellite Communication Service

A log cabin with a small satellite antenna mounted in the grass next to it.
Public Health Service Alaska Native Clinic with ATS-1 antenna.
National Library of Medicine #A018762

In 1970, the WAMI project (Washington, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) experimented with the first communications satellites to deliver medical information to physicians, students—and hopefully the public—in remote rural areas of the country. Using the ATS-1 satellite (launched in 1966), NLM, the Universities of Washington, Alaska and Stanford completed their first four-way teleconference. The system later expanded to include transmission of electrocardiograms and photographs. Satellite communications were a vast improvement over shortwave radio technology. In the arctic region, atmospheric interference often made radios inoperable. By 1974, NASA’s newer ATS-6 satellite enabled the service to include video and audio. Hospitals could now communicate directly with patients at distant outposts. Cummings later reflected that “We found that the program via satellite was successful not only for patients in Alaska but as a long-term potential for the delivery of medical education at distant and remote settings.”

The Information Explosion and Cataloging Backlogs

Chart showing the steep rise of the term information explosion from 1958 to 1973
N-gram visualization for the phrase ‘information explosion.’ Author’s query, Google Books Ngram Viewer 9/13/2013.

Each generation seems to have their own information explosion fear. Dr. Cummings first used the term in a 1967 speech. NLM was feeling the effects of budgetary shortages and staffing challenges after the economic downturn of the late 1970s. Dr. Cummings sometimes planted important questions he wanted the Senators to ask to highlight these topics in the appropriations record and thus making the topics more mission-critical. In his 1981 testimony, Dr. Cummings reported that due to the explosion in medical publishing NLM no longer had the staffing to keep up with its cataloging backlog: “Even the National Library of Medicine can no longer guarantee to provide a copy of all of these materials… I am embarrassed to report to you that we have a backlog of 15,000 books that have never been cataloged. A book that has never been cataloged might just as well not be in the library.” Senator Eagleton responded “This doesn’t reflect on you personally, Doctor, but I find your testimony a bit depressing.” In his commentary Dr. Cummings remarked “Yes, Senator Eagleton allowed me to put the backlog in the record. The National Institutes of Health recognized the problem and was supportive of the NLM’s need. The Lister Hill Center Building was about to become operational but there were a lot of demands for funding.”

Portrait of John Rees outside on the water.John Rees is Archivist and Digital Resources Manager for the The Archives and Modern Manuscripts Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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