The Daily Dose Presents: The National Library of Medicine

DailyDose2Welcome back to the Daily Dose!

A few weeks ago, we featured the National Library of Medicine on the Dose.  The NLM itself is the world’s largest biomedical library with a collection of over twelve million books, journals, manuscripts, audiovisuals, and other forms of medical

During the past three decades, the NLM has come to have global influence through developing electronic information services, and the new blog of the NLM’s History of Medicine Division, Circulating Now, complements the broader history of the Library in important ways.

Today, I have asked Elizabeth Mullen, Manager of Web Development and Social Media in the History of Medicine Division, to share with us about the making of Circulating Now. What does it take to put a blog like this together? How might it change or evolve int he future? Thank you, Beth, for sharing your thoughts today on the journey from inception to completion!


2c93335Elizabeth Mullen

I joined the National Library of Medicine in 2001 as an exhibit specialist for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division.  My background in anthropology and museum studies was a good match for the work I did for the next few years, developing museum style exhibitions for display at the Library and online.  As time went on and budgets shrank, I became more interested in using the web to ensure that our exhibition messages reached the greatest number of people, whether that meant presenting and enhancing the content of our exhibitions online, using the web to more effectively communicate about our resources, or using social media to effectively communicate with new and existing customers.

Earlier this year I took a new position in the Division as the Manager of Web Development and Social Media. The National Library of Medicine has amazing and unmatched resources in the history of medicine and because we are a national library these resources are a public asset, and they should therefore be available and accessible to everyone. NLM’s digitized collections now offer people much greater access, even casual browsers of our website can have access that previously would have been available only to those able to come to our physical reading room. Still, most people will not be aware that they have this access or that it might be useful or interesting to them.

One of the ways we’ve chosen to address this challenge is by developing Circulating Now, a new blog written for the general public and focused on our collections and public resources.  NLM is not a circulating library—and as we developed the project there was some concern internally that the title might give the wrong impression about what we do—but the idea took hold because as more of our collection materials are digitized, and more of our data is made portable, and as we continue to develop new online resources that interpret and scaffold our collections for librarians, teachers, students and the public, our material is circulating, virtually, and at an amazing rate. And we want to keep that going.

Nobody knows a collection like its custodians and we’re very lucky to have knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and articulate staff members who are passionate about the collections they care for and the work they do.  Circulating Now creates a bridge between the staff and the public that is more flexible, rapid, and efficient than producing, organizing, and maintaining individual thematic websites.  This ease of use allows for a much greater variety of collection materials to be exposed to search engines and shared with the public.  The nature of the blog platform also creates a community of interested individuals, reaches out to the public regularly, and extends the reach of the Library’s work in a way that traditional web projects, and uninterpreted digital collections on their own do not. Circulating Now allows us to share timely, unique, and detailed information about individual collection items and activities, and this allows us both to expand our audience and to dedicate more resources to improving our main website and developing more complex and targeted online projects.

As with any new thing, we had discussions and disagreements about the details of software, design, and style concerns.  Some of our decisions were constrained by government policies and available resources but where we had flexibility we moved in directions that supported the project’s goals.  One of our goals is to showcase the vast variety of materials that we have and so we wanted a design that was very visual and which could convey the breadth of the collections. We also wanted a design that would make an impression and break a little away from the traditional government website.

Building this blog has been a really exciting challenge.  From the beginning, we’ve had a clear vision about the purpose and audience for the blog, that the writing should be approachable for everyone and the material should evoke the living quality of the NLM’s historical collections and the stories they offer about the experience of health and disease across ten centuries and around the world.  We’re always working toward the goal of engaging the public and finding new ways to connect with the people who can use and be inspired by our collections, including scholars, educators, and students who may know our collections well and those who may not, many discover them for the first time, and be gratified that they did so, for the benefit of research, teaching, and learning.  One nice thing about Circulating Now is that it’s malleable, constantly changing, so while we’re still evaluating our tagging system, settling into our workflows, and coming to grips with our metrics, we can learn quickly from our experiences and be constantly improving to reach the wide audience that deserves to learn about the NLM’s historical collections and related resources.

Thank you, Beth! We look forward to seeing the future of NLM’s digital collections!

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