By Dr. Donald A.B. Lindberg, M.D.,Director, National Library of Medicine
In 1836, the library of the U.S. Army Surgeon General consisted of a small collection of medical books on one shelf. Today, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) is the world's largest biomedical library. With some 14 million items in more than 150 languages, it is the worldwide leader in trusted medical and health information and innovation.
But this unique library is about much more than books. Every day it delivers trillions of bytes of data crucial to the lives of millions everywhere. NLM–designed databases and tools lead people to helpful medical literature and health information; help researchers study genes and their role in disease; provide emergency responders with critical information on hazardous substances, and much, much more.
The Library is a leader in biomedical informatics, which is the use of computers and communications technology in biology, medicine, and health. NLM conducts and funds informatics research and trains future generations of scientists and information specialists. It plays an essential role in the development of electronic health records, health data standards, and the exchange of health information.
In this and coming issues, we will highlight some of NLM's most important contributions to its mission to acquire, organize, and disseminate biomedical information for the betterment of American–and global–human health.
Creating Information Resources for Researchers
Since the dawn of the computer age, some 50 years ago, NLM has been at the forefront, delivering specific, trusted information in timely, innovative ways. In 1971, for example, NLM created Medline, an online database of references to the biomedical literature. Completely free access to Medline began in 1997 through PubMed, a new access system.
Today, PubMed/Medline (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/) contains over 20 million references to articles published in more than 5,300 current biomedical journals from the U.S. and over 80 foreign countries. It is approaching one billion searches a year from users worldwide.
Much of the research and development at NLM is done at its Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications (LHNCBC) and the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). NCBI is meeting the challenge of organizing, analyzing, and disseminating scientific research data with a suite of more than 40 integrated databases and software technologies that are enabling the genetic discoveries of the 21st century.
Lister Hill researchers use computer and communications technologies to improve the way information is organized, stored, retrieved, and preserved. One of its most well–used databases is ClinicalTrials.gov (www.clinicaltrials.gov), launched in 2000. ClinicalTrials.gov is the world's largest clinical trials database, including registration data for nearly 100,000 clinical studies with sites in 174 countries. It recently has been expanded to include summary results and information about any adverse events.
Dozens of other NLM Web–based information resources also are available. For a list of all NLM resources, go to www.nlm.nih.gov/databases.
Serving the Public with Up–to–Date Information
Through consumer-friendly sites, such as MedlinePlus(www.medlineplus.gov) and NIHSeniorHealth (www.nihseniorhealth.gov), NLM provides timely, accurate, and understandable information to help patients, their families, and the public play a more active role in managing their health and health care.
MedlinePlus has over 700,000 Web visits every day from visitors in all but a handful of the world's 194 countries. In addition to covering more than 800 health topics, MedlinePlus offers interactive tutorials, medical dictionaries, a medical encyclopedia, directories of hospitals and providers, and the latest health news.
To reach the rapidly exploding mobile Internet audience around the world, NLM recently launched Mobile MedlinePlus (http://m.medlineplus.gov), in English and Spanish, which delivers the same high quality, trusted consumer health information to cell phones and other mobile devices.
Developing Electronic Health Records for 21st Century Medicine
For more than three decades, NLM has supported pioneering research on electronic health records, clinical decision-making support, and health information exchange. The Library produces, supports, and disseminates the key clinical terminology standards used in electronic health data. NLM has also recently released the MedlinePlus Connect feature, to enable patients, hospital discharge nurses, or physicians to link directly from problems and medications in a patient's record to explanations of these same terms in MedlinePlus.
Assisting in Emergencies
When disasters strike, the Library moves swiftly to meet people's needs through its Disaster Information Management Research Center (DIMRC), which facilitates access to disaster information, promotes effective use of libraries and disaster information specialists for disaster management, and supports initiatives to ensure uninterrupted access to critical health information resources when disasters occur.
Within a week of the Haiti earthquake tragedy, NLM launched a Health Resources for Haiti Web page, with information in English and Haitian Creole. Working with libraries and American publishers, NLM made available free, full-text articles from hundreds of biomedical journals and reference books for medical teams responding to the disaster.
Going Beyond Bricks and Mortar
The NLM has many programs that fall outside the traditional role of a library as a repository of published works. For instance, in a 1990s project called The Visible Human, Lister Hill scientists built a library of digital images of the complete anatomy of a normal male and female. Almost 3,200 individuals and institutions in 61 countries have licensed the data for a wide range of educational, diagnostic, treatment planning, virtual reality, and industrial uses.
The Library maintains PubMedCentral (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc), which provides free, unrestricted access to a Web-based bank of more than two million full-text articles from newly published material based on NIH-supported research projects, as well as from digitized older material previously available only in printed form.
NLM's historical resources form the basis for a continuing program of exhibitions that may be visited in person or online. Smaller, traveling exhibitions–on topics as diverse as Charles Darwin, Harry Potter, Frankenstein, and America's women physicians–tour throughout the United States thanks to partnerships with the American Library Association, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and others.
Poised for the Future
NLM's information services and research programs serve the nation and the world by supporting scientific discovery, clinical research, education, health care delivery, public health response, and the empowerment of people to improve personal health.
The Library is committed to the innovative use of computing and communications to enhance effective public access to understanding and discovery in human health.