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Commentary by Dr. Martin M. Cummings on his testimony before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee concerning the National Library of Medicine, for fiscal year 1983

From interviews with Dr. Cheryl Dee, 2011

Excerpts from testimony
Interview and commentary
Further resources

Excerpts of U.S. Senate subcommittee testimony concerning the National Library of Medicine, followed by an interview with Dr. Martin M. Cummings, Director Emeritus, National Library of Medicine, reflecting upon the testimony



U.S. SENATE . . . Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations


Dr. Malone. Mr. Chairman, coming to the table are Dr. Martin Cummings, Director of the National Library of Medicine, and Kent Smith, Deputy Director of that library.

Senator Rudman. Would you identify again the people at the table because we don't have name tags.

Dr. Malone. To my left is Dr. Martin M. Cummings, Director of the National Library of Medicine. And to his left is Mr. Kent Smith, the Deputy Director of the National Library of Medicine.

Senator Rudman. All right Dr. Cummings: I know you have testified before the subcommittee for many years, and we welcome you again.

I would like to offer a special welcome to Mr. Smith whose father is an old friend of mine and who, I believe, was also a resident of my home town in New Hampshire.

Mr. Smith. He still is, sir.

Senator Rudman. I believe you were also.

Mr. Smith. Yes, I was.

Senator Rudman. We rarely have people from New Hampshire up here before the Committee. Most of them were smart enough to leave which says something about the two of us, Mr. Smith.

Mr. Smith. Thank you.


The newest activity of the National Library of Medicine is to upgrade the MEDLARS system. We believe, through this new upgrading, that we will make a more efficient contribution to providing medical literature and the information contained within the medical literature to those who need it. We believe we will lower the cost of handling this literature and, therefore, representing a national saving.

We believe that through our centralized cataloging, we will save about $3 million for the Nation which won't have to repeat this cataloging.

Another most significant change will result when we reconfigure our regional medical library network from the present eleven institutions that serve in this capacity down to seven institutions.


Senator Rudman. We have some concerns on pricing, if you will, and the cost recovery on these computer systems. You have had discussions with the Committee before on the subject. You went a number of years--I believe 3--without a rate increase. And then last October, online fees went from $8 to $15 for non-prime time and from $15 to $22 for prime time. Did those increases jolt any of your users? Did you have any falloff in the amount of use of your data base?

Dr. Cummings. We have had, I think, the conventional response to the increase in pricing which is a plateauing immediately after the announcement of a new pricing structure, and then the beginning of increased use.

But since we have only had this new pricing in effect for 3 months, I can't be confident of the significance of the change from the plateau to further increase.

I might say that the greatest reaction to our change in pricing has come not from our on-line hourly charges, but from the change in the method through which we recover costs for leasing our tapes. There has been a very interesting reaction, Mr. Chairman, on the part of one vendor. We have been told that the new prices are too high, and they are somewhat angry with us. And on the part of another commercial vendor, we have been told the pricing is still too low. I feel comfortable that we are somewhere in the middle, and I think that is the most direct answer I can give you.

Senator Rudman. When you say in some of the material that you submitted that full costs are recovered, that is certainly of use and access. I don't assume that applies to creation of the data-base.

Dr. Cummings. That is correct. We do not pass on the cost of acquiring the books and journals nor cataloging them because we believe that is a normal function of the library. But everything that goes beyond that--computer management, computer operations, communication costs, printing, overhead, all of the training that is related to the activity is passed on to the user.

And I can tell you that we do recover full accessing costs. In fact, Mr. Chairman, we returned about $300,000 to the Treasury last year.


Senator Rudman. I want to move on to some of the licensing agreements very briefly. That is a slightly different version of what we are talking about.

It is the committee's understanding you have certain commercial users who essentially have negotiated on-line lease arrangements to your data-base and then, of course, are able to extract this and to sell it as a commercial venture to smaller users.

Dr. Cummings. That's right.

Senator Rudman. Do you feel that your fee schedule and your lease schedule in terms of what you are receiving is reasonable and fair both in terms of: 1. What it has cost you; and, 2. What it may be reaping in profits for them?

Dr. Cummings. Well, let me start in reverse order. We have no way of knowing what profit is being made by the commercial sector which leases our tapes. We can only surmise that they are doing well because in the case of one small business which leased our tapes, it became a large business, sufficiently large to be bought by a conglomerate overseas.

We think it was profitable.

The other company, we also believe is doing reasonably well.

The difficult part of establishing pricing, Mr. Chairman, is to attempt to satisfy the conditions defined in an OMB circular which calls for full cost recovery under certain conditions, the conditions imposed by the Congress, which in the past has been interested in sharing this knowledge with people at all levels so that we don't price the poor and disadvantaged out of access, and the consideration of having domestic and foreign commercial vendors competing for the American market. It is the latter problem that has been the most difficult for us.


Senator Rudman. During the past year, have you had any improvement in your backlog in terms of your cataloging?

Dr. Cummings. Yes, I was hoping someone would ask me that question. It is the most embarrassing question we have had to deal with in recent years.

Senator Rudman. Can you give us some empirical data in response to that?

Dr. Cummings. Yes: I am pleased to tell you that the backlog will be reduced by two-thirds, and we are now entering the normal processing arrangement where the backlog equals the capacity of the staff to catalog.

Interview with Martin Cummings, MD, Director Emeritus, National Library of Medicine, 1964-84; interviewed by Cheryl Dee, PhD, 2011.

Kent Smith, Deputy Director, NLM

Dr. Dee. Dr. Cummings, Senator Rudman voices an important connection with your Deputy, Kent Smith.

Dr. Cummings. That short interchange between Senator Rudman and Kent Smith tell an important story. Who you knew on the Hill was and still is enormously important.

Kent had valuable connections with key people on the Hill. I give full credit to Kent Smith, my dear friend and outstanding Deputy, for all he was able to accomplish with his distinguished colleagues.

The National Institutes of Health blocked the funding of the Lister Hill Center building for longer than I care to remember. Kent Smith was my inside man to carry National Library of Medicine's Lister Hill Center's building cause to NIH. Kent was my soldier. You need to ask Kent Smith how he got the funding for the Lister Hill Center.

I think the world of Kent Smith.


Dr. Dee. Dr. Cummings, the discussions on the MEDLARS pricing and fee schedule for the tape licensing agreements fit together nicely.

Dr. Cummings. My response regarding the tape licensing agreements summarizes most questions and answers on NLM pricing. One party will say we are charging too much and the other party will say were charging too little. As the testimony that you sent to me indicates, we were pleased to report that we returned about $300,000 to the Treasury that year.

Dr. Dee. Dr. Cummings, will you tell us a little more about the MEDLARS upgrade.

Dr. Cummings. MEDLARS II was not capable of meeting the rapidly growing needs of the Library.

Regional Medical Libraries

Dr. Dee. Dr. Cummings, please tell us about the move from eleven to seven RML's.

Dr. Cummings. Budget constraints became a factor for the Regional Medical Library program when the funding was not enlarged over a significant period of time. The National Library of Medicine was faced with a major decision of whether to abandon the program or to reduce the program. This led us to the decision to reduce the number of regions from eleven to seven. The Library simply had to face up to the facts. We found we had to cut four of the RML's.

Cataloging Backlog

Dr. Dee. Dr. Cummings, good news about the cataloging backlog.

Dr. Cummings. The Testimony tells the story.

Further Resources

Articles and Oral Histories

  • Harkin, Tom (Senator). "Tribute to Kent A. Smith." Capitolwords 2004 July 12; 150 (95): S7934.
  • Smith, Kent "Laws, leaders, and legends of the modern National Library of Medicine." The paper is an expanded version of the 2007 Joseph Leiter National Library of Medicine (NLM)/Medical Library Association Lecture presented at the Medical Library Association annual meeting in Philadelphia in May 2007. It presents an historical accounting of four major pieces of legislation, beginning with the NLM Act of 1956 up through the creation of the National Center for Biotechnology Information. J Med Libr Assoc. 2008 April; 96(2): 121-133.
  • Sodergren, Linnea. "MEDLARS II: A Review". Bull Med Libr Assoc. 1973 October; 61(4): 400-407.