Patricia Brennan is the first registered nurse to become the director of the National Library of Medicine. (Photo by Andre Chung; illustration by National Library of Medicine/For The Washington Post)

Patricia Brennan, 63, is the first registered nurse to be director of the National Library of Medicine. She lives in Washington.

You’re a nurse and a librarian —

Nope, I’m a nurse and an engineer. I happen to be heading a library, but I’m not a librarian.

How are you not a librarian?

You can’t call yourself a librarian by nature of your job, but by your training. The first month I was here I kept going to classes to learn what [librarians] do. The world is changing, and our substrate of knowledge is becoming data, not articles. Go way, way back in medicine to the Greeks, and medicine was an experiential knowledge base. The early physicians didn’t know why sunlight helped certain diseases. When you get into the 19th and 20th centuries, medicine was based on the results of experiments or answers to questions. That mattered to the library because we went from having these beautifully illustrated volumes and discourses to having articles that reported experiments. In the 21st century we’re moving into data as the basis. Instead of an experiment simply answering a question, it also generates a data set. We don’t have to repeat experiments to get more out of the data. This idea of moving from experiments to data has a lot of implications for the library of the future. Which is why I am not a librarian.

This is where medicine is happening now. Not in a lab.

In the cloud!

Well, my question was going to be: If you’re a nurse and a librarian, how do you know which one to dress up as sexy for Halloween?

See, when you’re an engineer you already have that decided. You wear your jeans.

What do you think the NLM will look like in five years?

We will increasingly be experimenting with different kinds of information presentation. One of our laboratories now uses virtual reality to provide experiential exposure to information so people actually get placed in a scenario with avatars, so they can rehearse getting ready, in this case, for disaster management. I’m in the process of setting up my own laboratory here. I want to expand my use of virtual reality for information engagement. That will be largely for lay people. Disseminating information in ways that do not require reading but allow people to interact with it in other ways is going to be very important.

What worries you about the new administration?

I am concerned less about this administration and more about a transition in society overall, a devaluing of reflective thought and intellectual basis. There is a sense that not much is trustable. That I’m actually kind of excited about because it brings things back to the individual needing to think things through and understand and reflect, and that’s what a library does. If anything, the transition emboldens what we need to do.

More Just Asking

For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.

Follow the Magazine on Twitter.

Like us on Facebook.

Email us at