By Jeffrey S. Reznick
At the end of this month, Donald A.B. Lindberg, MD, Director of the National Library of Medicine since 1984, will retire from his position and leave a tremendous legacy that generations of the Library’s patrons will value for years to come. His progressive, future-oriented leadership, grounded by his understanding and respect of history, situates our institution well for the future, and our History of Medicine Division in particular to embrace the future as stewards of the past.
Dr. Lindberg led the NLM into the digital age. During his tenure, technological innovations proliferated, and many of the programs and resources these innovations yielded will be familiar to readers of Circulating Now. To name only a few: in 1988, the Library established its National Center for Biotechnology Information, which has become a world-renowned leader in advancing science and health by providing access to biomedical and genomic information, including full-text historical journals in its PubMed Central repository and European counterpart, Europe PMC. 1990 saw the Library embark on a collaborative effort to transfer the printed data of the massive and unique Index-Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon-General’s Office into an online, searchable database, called IndexCat™, whose Extensible Markup Language (XML) data was released last year for new, big-data oriented users and new uses in research, education, and learning; in 1994–1995 the “Visible Human Male” and “Visible Human Female” were released—modern digital anatomical atlases—which stand in a long and rich tradition of the printed, layered human body; and consumer-friendly MedlinePlus appeared in 1998, followed by MedlinePlus en español in 2002; these companion resources for patients and their families offer free and up-to-date information about diseases, conditions, and wellness issues in understandable language.
These and many other innovations, combined with Dr. Lindberg’s appreciation of the history of medicine, supported the Library in bringing its physical collections increasingly into the digital arena, to escape physical reading rooms and be explored by people across the nation and the world. Examples of Dr. Lindberg’s passion for increasing access to knowledge and information can be found in the many digital projects that developed under his leadership. Profiles in Science offers curated, digital-archival collections of dozens of prominent leaders in biomedical research and public health who have advanced the scientific enterprise. Turning the Pages enables individuals to explore and learn from curated, interactive versions of rare and unique materials from the NLM’s historical collections—including, most recently, Dr. Marshall Nirenberg’s first summary of the genetic code, a description of which is also included in Profiles in Science. Building on these achievements—and so many more—the future NLM will flourish. Its dedicated staff will continue to archive news and information about disease outbreaks—like Ebola and influenza—that is created and shared digitally over the web. NLM will sustain and grow collaborations with likeminded organizations and initiatives—including the Medical Heritage Library, National Endowment for the Humanities, Smithsonian Institution, and Welcome Library—to pursue questions of common—and public—interest such as how historical collections can be made more widely available and used critically in traditional research methods and in new ones that are emerging with the digital humanities.
In his support of these and many other advancements, Dr. Lindberg appreciated the NLM as a place—open to all—where patrons could visit, explore, and learn. He held in high regard the NLM’s world-renowned collections, and he considered them to be the institution’s lifeblood, wherein stories of medical heritage and the human condition are revealed through the expertise of librarians and archivists, historians and curators, and anyone else who would dedicate time to read these materials, look at them, touch them, and learn from them. Perhaps the greatest testimony to Dr. Lindberg’s sense of the public value of the Library and its collections is the success of the NLM’s award-winning Exhibition Program. Over the last fifteen years, the program has touched millions of individuals through its interactive exhibitions and special displays onsite and on the Web, through its online, multidisciplinary K-12 and higher education resources, and, most of all, through its traveling exhibitions that tour the world and in so doing inform a wide and diverse audience about stories of the past and their relevance to the present and the future.
Further evidence of Dr. Lindberg’s appreciation of the stories that live in the collections of the Library may be found in his introduction to the book Hidden Treasure, which was published in 2011 to mark the 175th anniversary of the Library:
“…My friend and colleague the computer scientist Ed Feigenbaum once playfully described the Old Times as the period ‘when the books in the library could not talk to each other.’ In spite of all our efforts in artificial intelligence and computational linguistics, the books still need the help of a scholarly curator if they are to speak together—or to us. I am delighted that Dr. Michael Sappol has undertaken this effort and has recruited so talented a group of scholars for this task. …I take pleasure in echoing the enthusiasm for true, original, real books within our grasp, as Robert Darnton has said so well in The Case for Books. Here he notes that examination of multiple copies of the Shakespeare Folios is necessary because no two are alike. In science, too, speedy computer access to information is truly wonderful. Yet there are times—especially when we ask why or how a discovery or a belief arose—when we need to see and hold original intellectual works…”
As patrons and staff of today’s NLM thank Dr. Lindberg for his leadership and his support, those of tomorrow will look back on his tenure and do the same, because he looked to the future without losing sight of the past, demonstrating an appreciation of all we could learn from history while not being constrained by it.