Building Better Connections: The National Library of Medicine and Public Health

By Humphreys, Betsy L. | Journal of the Medical Library Association, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Building Better Connections: The National Library of Medicine and Public Health


Humphreys, Betsy L., Journal of the Medical Library Association


Purpose: The paper describes the expansion of the public health programs and services of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) in the 1990s and provides the context in which NLM's public health outreach programs arose and exist today.

Brief Description: Although NLM has always had collections and services relevant to public health, the US public health workforce made relatively little use of the library's information services and programs in the twentieth century. In the 1990s, intensified emphases on outreach to health professionals, building national information infrastructure, and promoting health data standards provided NLM with new opportunities to reach the public health community. A seminal conference cosponsored by NLM in 1995 produced an agenda for improving public health access to and use of advanced information technology and electronic information services. NLM actively pursued this agenda by developing new services and outreach programs and promoting public health informatics initiatives.

Method: Historical analysis is presented.

Results/Outcome: NLM took advantage of a propitious environment to increase visibility and understanding of public health information challenges and opportunities. The library helped create partnerships that produced new information services, outreach initiatives, informatics innovations, and health data policies that benefit the public health workforce and the diverse populations it serves.

INTRODUCTION

Public health is concerned with improving the health of entire populations. It has been defined as encompassing ten essential services:

* monitoring health status to identify community health problems;

* diagnosing and investigating health problems and hazards in the community;

* informing, educating, and empowering people about health issues;

* mobilizing community partnerships to identify and solve health problems;

* developing policies and plans that support individual and community health efforts;

* enforcing laws and regulations that protect health and ensure safety;

* linking people to needed personal health services and assuring the provision of such services when otherwise unavailable;

* assuring a competent public health and personal health care workforce;

* evaluating the effectiveness, accessibility, and quality of personal and population-based health services; and

* research for new insights and innovative solutions to health problems [1].

By this or any other definition, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) is probably the largest public health library in the world. Public health has been a core subject for NLM at least since the 1860s when it was the Library of the Surgeon General's Office, US Army. The NLM collection and bibliographic databases cover public health literature produced by mainstream publishers, US federal and state government agencies, and international organizations. The library has substantial, although less comprehensive, holdings of public health "gray literature" and modern manuscripts (i.e., the papers of individuals and organizations influential in the development of public health interventions and policy).

Since the mid-1960s, NLM's toxicology and environmental health program has developed specialized bibliographic and data resources useful to public health workers focused on poison control, environmental monitoring, and public health emergencies that involve hazardous substances [2]. In the 1980s, the library developed special HIV/AIDS information services targeted at public health workers, communitybased organizations, and the affected population [3]. Beginning in 1990, NLM's health services research information program developed new databases and services that were directly relevant to several core public health activities, including monitoring health status, health policy development, and evaluation of the effectiveness, accessibility, and quality of health services [4]. …

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