Detail from The illustrated cover of an annual report featuring a laptop, keyboard, dna strand, globe and NLM seal.

Al Gore, the Internet and the National Library of Medicine

By Michael Kronenfeld and Jennie J. Kronenfeld ~

Since the late 1990, Al Gore has been ridiculed for supposedly claiming to have invented the Internet.  In reality, he played a key role in the early development of the Internet.  In 2005, he was awarded the Webby Lifetime Achievement Award.  The Webby Award is the leading international award honoring excellence on the Internet. The announcement of his award states:

Setting the record straight on one of the recent history’s most persistent political myths, The Webby Awards will present Former Vice President Al Gore with The Webby Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of the pivotal role he has played in the development of the Internet over the past three decades. An early advocate of high-speed telecommunications as an engine for economic growth, Gore was among the first members of Congress to recognize the importance of the Internet. As a Senator, Gore spearheaded legislation which created the National Research and Education Network, a critical initiative that spread the Internet beyond the field of computer science. During his eight years as Vice President, Gore led efforts to expand the Internet access to the nation’s schools and libraries and provided critical political support for both the speedy privatization of the Internet and continued research in advanced networking technology. Vint Cerf, widely credited as a founder of the Internet, will present former Vice President Gore with the award.

In the early 1990s, NLM had already been leading the application of emerging technology to facilitate access to knowledge-based information. It recognized in the early 1980s the potential impact of effective networking of computer-based systems and resources to facilitate the sharing and effective utilization of digitally based information.  In 1982, NLM launched its Integrated Academic Information Management System (IAIMS) program which initially focused on the library’s role in the development of academic information management networks and systems.  In the mid 1980’s, the scope of the program expanded to include improved information management at the institutional level.

In late 1991, Congress passed the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991 (Public Law 102-194).  The objective of the act, introduced by Senator Gore, was to sustain and extend the country’s leadership in advancing computing, networking, software, and information technologies.  This led in 1992 to creation of the National Coordination Office for High Performance Computing and Communications (NCO/HPCC). The NCO was established to implement the requirements of the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991 (Public Law 102-194). In early 1992, NLM established the Office of High Performance Computing and Communications (OHPCC) as the focal point for the federal government’s high performance computing and communications research and development activities.  NLM Director Lindberg was appointed the founding Director of the NCO which was initially housed at NLM.  He served in that role until 1995 at which time the Center was moved to the National Science Foundation.  In Lindeberg’s 1995 article in BMLA titled “HPCC and the National Information Infrastructure: an Overview” he summarizes the success of the HPCC:

The federal portion of the Internet is one of the greatest successes of the HPCC Program. Internet now extends across the country and around much of the world. Almost three million computers are accessible over Internet; more than 18,000 regional, state, and local U.S. networks and more than 13,000 foreign networks in approximately 100 countries are part of the Internet. As of June 1994, nearly 1,200 four-year colleges and universities, 100 community colleges, and 1,000 U.S. high schools were connected. Internet continues to grow at a phenomenal rate, although many U.S. hospitals do not yet have access to it.

The following reports on the first two years of the High Performance Computing and Communications program present the need and objectives of the program as well as its initial organization and activities:

During this period, in which Director Lindberg and NLM played a lead role in the federal government’s effort to support and develop the Internet, NLM was already working to expand Internet connectivity of medical libraries.  In 1992, NLM initiated its Internet connections grant program to support Internet connectivity. The grants were available to all public and private nonprofit health science organizations.  It also funded a project at the University of Washington on the efficacy of Internet access and resources in community hospitals.  In that year, NLM also initiated, in collaboration with the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, a fellowship program aimed at introducing medical educators, medical librarians, medical administrators, and young faculty who were not knowledgeable about medical informatics but who had the potential to become change agents in their institutions to medical informatics.

The illustrated cover of an annual report.
NLM Fiscal Year Activities Report, 1993
National Library of Medicine Institutional Archives

In 1993, NLM launched Locator, its online catalog, with in house and Internet access.  It also began making NLM publications available via File Transfer Protocol (FTP) via the Internet.

NLM’s early efforts to encourage medical libraries online on the Internet were effective. In the fall of 1993, the RMLs did a brief survey on the status of Internet connections among the 4,000 NN/LM members.  3,331 responded with 34% having Internet access.  72% of AHSLs who responded and 24% of responding hospital libraries had access.  Their primary use of the Internet was for Email with database searching a remote secondary use.  A follow-up survey in 1999 found that 100% of academic medical libraries, 91% of hospital libraries and 97% of other medical libraries had internet connections.

In 1994, NLM launched its first Web Site. It also released the initial male Visible Human, a project to create two 3-dimensional, computer generated images of human beings. The female version was launched in 1995. The project provided a public-domain library of cross-sectional cryosection, CT, and MRI images obtained from one male cadaver and one female cadaver.  It was an early example of a dataset that required high performance computing and communications technology for effective use. NLM started its system reinvention project which would eventually replace all of its legacy systems using ELHILL with a new, Internet based system.

Al Gore sits at a laptop labeled surrounded by NLM staff looking on.
Al Gore with Suzanne McInerney, David Lipman, Harold Varmus, and Donald A.B. Lindberg, at a Ceremony on Capitol Hill, June, 26, 1997
National Library of Medicine #101707382

NLM and Director Lindberg continued their interaction with Vice President Gore. At the 1997 launch of Internet based PubMed, the vice-President performed the first ceremonial search of the system providing a free, Internet/World Wide Web index of medical publications.

To celebrate the role that NLM played in supporting the emergence of the Internet, in 2017 on the 25th anniversary of the act’s passage, the NLM’s History of Medicine Division formally released the National Coordination Office for High Performance Computing and Communications Archives.

For more information on the impact of the Act and the NCO/HPCC, check out the three blog posts the Division published in Circulating Now in late 2017 on the Archives and the Anniversary:

Michael Kronenfeld, MLS, MBA, AHIP, FMLA, is University Librarian Emeritus at A.T. Still University of the Health Sciences. Jennie J. Kronenfeld, PhD is Professor Emerita at Arizona State University. They are currently engaged in research for a forthcoming book on the history of medical libraries and medical librarianship in the United States.  In support of this project they received a group award of the NLM Michael E. DeBakey Fellowship in the History of Medicine in 2019.

One comment

  1. Thank you for the nostalgia trip! I was a newbie medical librarian in 1992, having just emerged from the chrysalis of library school, and while I was aware of NLM’s long engagement with the Internet at the time, I was too busy learning how to be a medical librarian to spend much time thinking about it. Regarding VP Gore’s engagement with the Internet: You write: “At the 1997 launch of Internet based PubMed, the vice-President performed the first ceremonial search of the system providing a free, Internet/World Wide Web index of medical publications.” I absolutely remember all this, just as I remember PubMed becoming free — an earth-shattering event– and have a very distinct memory of Mr. Gore saying something to the effect of ‘I invented the Internet’ which librarians talked about a lot. My sense at the time was that this remark related directly to PubMed — perhaps it was intended as a joke, but the humor didn’t travel well?

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