She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not

February 8, 2012

The Professional Retention and Recruitment Committee of the Medical Library Association (my professional association) posted on MLA’s “Linked In” site the questions: Do you think you make a difference at your organization? Do you still feel valuable as a librarian? I wrote a response there, but wanted to put it here on my blog, too. As I state, it’s a bigger question; one that can be directed to a lot of other professions and institutions than librarians and libraries.

—–

This is an awfully timely discussion as I just went to a workshop on Monday on embedded, personal and liaison librarians. The audience consisted of librarians from many types and sizes of institutions; state and private colleges, junior colleges, companies, medical schools. It was repeated by practically every soul there (perhaps indicative of the theme of the program) that neither students nor faculty really know what the library and librarians can do for them. Working in an academic health sciences library, I can include clinicians and staff of the hospital to that list, too. It was hardly a new cry, “Nobody knows our value!” but it got me to thinking – and especially, questioning – what’s behind this phenomenon.

It covers the gamut, from young students straight out of high school to those working on a PhD. It applies to all faculty, whether they finished their degree and began teaching 3 years ago or 30. It crosses every discipline, from medicine to history. Faculty do not refer their students to the library (read, they don’t know what we can do) and students don’t come to the library (read, they don’t know what we can do).

So… I started to think about this in a historical context. When the heck did the shift happen? When did people stop knowing what’s available through their library? If you have faculty who don’t know this, 30 years into their profession, have they always not known? Have they never taught their students the value of the library? If that’s the case, how have we gotten on this long? If they did once teach them the value of the library, when did they stop? And why? When you think that we’ve been promoting information literacy in schools (K-12 + college) since the 70s, as that term, and library instruction, as that term, since the late 1800s, when did it get lost? OR what have we been doing to miss the mark in this charge we’ve been given (I’m willing to take some of the credit/blame as a profession)?

Today’s students, doctors, nurses, patients, we all say, do a lousy job at effectively finding and accessing the best quality information. They do not know how to do this. Why not? If it is our mission, as a profession, to teach them how, where and why have we failed?

These are the questions that I’ve been asking myself since Monday. Truthfully, before Monday, but they’ve been at the forefront of my thinking and it’s interesting to see the discussion here, too. Maybe I’m not the only one thinking it.

SO… I did a very quick look through the literature for the history of academic libraries and found a nice review of the literature published in “Library Philosophy and Practice” in 2005. I highlighted a bunch of interesting thoughts on my copy. I had a career before libraries that was based on “big thinking” like this – the meaning of life and such – so this type of questioning is always appealing. But digression aside, here are a few pieces that I think are most relevant to the topic and discussion and questions:

  • “Their (academic libraries, though I think we can include medical libraries, too) history is one of evolution and change that parallels the history of their parent institutions.”
  • There exists “a historic desire by librarians to be accepted equally by faculty” (insert clinicians, med students, etc.), but “the acceptance of librarians by the community has not improved very much” over time.
  • And finally, “libraries tend to reflect rather than create intellectual trends.”

No doubt, there are people who have and always will value libraries and librarians. They love us and the work we do, but more and more, I’m becoming convinced that this is much more a reflection of those individuals rather than the library and/or librarians. These people tend to be people who are willing to ask for help. They are often both intelligent and creative. They value reading (yes, reading – it will ALWAYS be tied to the idea of libraries and librarians) and they like asking questions. They are, in a sense, our people. They like us and we like them. They ARE us and we are them. But sadly (or perhaps, it’s a good thing in the larger picture of the universe) they (we) are the minority.

I think there is something to be said for and recognized in the quotes from this historical perspective (meaning, the above-referenced article). Our own history does reflect our parent institutions. It reflects our society. Education, learning, health care, medical research – these are all things that have ebbed and flowed in their importance throughout history. If you think about it, we may give a lot of lip service to these things as a society, but are they truly the heart of what we’re about in medical education and health care? I wonder. There’s a bottom line – in education, in research, and in health care – and I think we all know what that bottom line is. It is clearly reflected in many of the decisions that are made today, and ultimately the value that we place upon things in our society.

I’ve no idea on how to counter this in a large sense. Like others, the personal thanks that I regularly receive from a portion of students and researchers do make me feel better about the work I do. They make me feel like I make some small difference. But like others in this string of comments, too, I wish they happened more and reflected more a different set of values displayed by our institutions, hospitals and society at large. Something other than the literal bottom line.

 

[Weiner, S.G. (2005) The History of Academic Libraries in the United States: A Review of the Literature. Library Philosophy and Practice 7(2). Available online.]


Wise Words on Creativity, Formal Education, and Life-long Learning

December 21, 2011

I posed a question to MEDLIB-l yesterday, a listserv for medical librarians. The previous day I had both read a story and heard an interview on public radio about MITx, the new online learning option launched by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Stanford has a similar offering, as do other top-tier universities, I imagine. The premise is to allow anyone to sit in on current courses taught, via an online classroom; to take part in the same lectures, assignments, and tests as the matriculating students. Unlike open course ware (also offered by MIT and others), MITx provides the simultaneous learning platform, a learning community, for anyone to engage in and with. A person completing all of the work for the course on time may also request, for a small fee, a certificate of completion, thus giving some level of credit for the learning achieved.

The question I posed to my colleagues centered on whether or not people thought this model will serve as one for continuing education in the future. Specifically, I asked:

This story in the Chronicle and the one on WGBH radio (Boston) last night are both about MIT’s new online certification program. Stanford also started a similar model this past semester with a few classes – one of databases that I’ve followed, though admit that I’ve not done all of the homework.

I find these to be pretty progressive in thinking about education and wonder if it’s the way many of us will seek continuing education in the future. There is a lot of discussion on lists, at meetings and at conferences, on blogs, etc. about skills needed for the future, remaining relevant, and saving the profession. Do such offerings pique the interests of working professionals? Could you and/or would you find the time to commit yourself to the workload they require? They are free in terms of dollars spent, but certainly not in time and effort.

I was asking myself these questions last night as I heard the story on the way home (and had seen the Chronicle piece earlier in the day). I’m wondering what others think.

You may or may not be aware of the struggles the library profession, in particular medical librarians, are facing regarding their relevance and importance in the world of healthcare and medical research today. For years, searching for, securing and providing information was possible only through the gateway of the library. The internet, over time, has removed these barriers to information, making everything from journal articles to bibliographic databases available to users on their desktops, smartphones and iPads.

We can argue all day whether or not the information found by the user is as good in quality as that found by the professional, i.e. the librarian, but more and more this is a mute point. The information sought and found is often “good enough” for the purpose(s) and the thought of going to a library and/or asking the assistance of a librarian for such never enters one’s mind. This being the case, justified anxiety rises amongst the members of my profession; concern over not only our jobs today, but the very existence of the profession in the future. Hand-wringing and Chicken Little aside, the issue is real and calls for a thorough review of the skills librarians have, the skills they are being taught in graduate school, and the gaps between these skills and the ones needed to work in today’s medical and/or academic environment.

I received many thoughtful replies from colleagues. Some pointed out the difference in formal continuing education, i.e. recognized by a professional organization, and taking courses such as these. There were concerns expressed about the time commitment and whether or not employers would either support or recognize these type of learning activities. Some expressed the need to take such classes, but perhaps in a different time-frame. Others asked about the teachers and graders – who does this? In general, everyone who replied felt that another option for learning new skills is welcomed. The need is there, thus the more ways to fill it is appreciated.

One colleague struck a particular chord for both me and another librarian on the list. To paraphrase, he stated that the biggest concern should be learning what you need to learn to do what you need to do; beyond the graduate degree requirement for the librarian, few people look for credentials or extra credits. I liked this a lot. Learning what you need to learn to do what you need to do.

Going through Twitter this morning, I came across a tweet by one of my favorites to follow, Brain Pickings (@brainpicker). She pointed to a story by my very favorite author, Annie Dillard, that appeared in a 1974 issue of Sports Illustrated. Her tweet is filled with good advice. Heed it and read the piece:

More interesting, though, was that this particular tweet was preceded in my Twitter stream by one from Mother Jones referencing an article on Maria Popova herself. Maria Popova’s Beautiful Mind: The creator of Brain Pickings on how to think outside the corporate box, by Hanna Levintova. Of course, as it had so fortuitously landed where it did in my Twitter account, I followed the link and read the interview. It is a wonderful interview that reveals a few telling clues about what makes a person working with information truly successful today. More importantly for me, it had a section that spoke directly to the question I’d asked of my colleagues – thoughts on how we grow and learn and stay relevant in today’s world:

MJ: Have you always been so committed to information-consumption?

MP: Well, it’s an interesting thing. I didn’t really—at least intellectually and creatively—have a particularly compelling experience in college. But during my junior year, they made the TED talks public. So I started listening to them. They were producing one per day, and I was listening to one per day, every day, at the gym. And then I discovered PopTech and other kind of intellectual-ish, online portals for curiosity. Very quickly, I just got so much more out of those than from so-called “Ivy League” education that I knew it was on me to keep myself stimulated, and to keep learning, more than anything. And, because I paid my way through college, I was working at Penn, two to four jobs at a time to pay for school.

MJ: And in the middle of all this, you also found time to start Brain Pickings?!

MP: [Laughs.] It was crazy, crazy times. Well, one of my jobs was at a start-up ad agency. They were trying to do things differently, work with socially conscious clients, and to really be a more creative take on advertising than the industry itself. But I noticed that what the guys at the office were circulating for inspiration still came from within the ad industry. I thought that was really counterintuitive—to only borrow inspiration from within your own industry. So I started Brain Pickings as just a Friday, email newsletter, going out to my colleagues there, with five links, to five really different things that had nothing to do with advertising—from a vintage train map of Europe, to a Japanese short film from 1920, to the latest technology. Eventually I saw that these guys were forwarding these emails to friends of theirs that were in really different disciplines, not just creative ones—but writers, lawyers, students, whatever. So, I decided on top of all the jobs and school, to take a night class and teach myself web design and coding, just enough to get by. That’s how it started. And in the process, I was still digging into the things I was featuring, and in that process, you learn so much more than you do in a lecture. The whole life-long learner thing—this just became my way of doing that.

[emphasis mine]

More and more today, I believe that this really is the key to being successful in our field, and I define success not as accolades and a sense of grand importance on behalf of our institutions  (though those are sometimes, often, important), but as a sense of fulfillment; a sense of joy in the work we do. I believe that I am successful when, like Popova, I find myself stimulated and engaged and feeling most like the work I do through a fairly substantial portion of my life is … interesting.

Who amongst us longs for the career where we are nothing more than frustrated, day in and day out, by things well beyond our control? The internet is here to stay and with it, the searching habits, the access to information, and the “good enough” principle that keeps things moving at the speed that we, evidently, are convinced we must move. To rail against these things is a waste of energy. It seems to me, the people who enjoy life most are the ones who put their energies towards more constructive behavior, like learning what you need to learn to do what you need to do. The other is, to put it in my more common vernacular, “A waste of time, dude!”

 

 


A Trident of the Information Conundrum

November 15, 2011

In the span of twelve hours (in the past 18), I read two separate things that struck me… well, they left me… dumbfounded, really. Coupled with a third recent habit (can you couple to make three?), I find myself at a loss to express, let alone explain, all that I think of them except to say, “It’s a conundrum.”

1. Photoshop

Over the past 8 weeks, I took a class on the basics of graphic design. We covered basic principles of design, as well as how to use the Adobe products, Photoshop and InDesign. I learned a lot, including a gained (and unexpected) awareness of how often pictures that appear in magazines, websites, ads, etc. are manipulated. It happens so often, I now note, that I find myself questioning what the heck is real in any of these images anymore. It’s one thing to draw or paint a picture of a setting and throw an extra tree in to make it look nicer. There’s an expectation of interpretation in some artistic disciplines. I’m not sure that everyday photography carries with it the same.

Examples: I sit in a committee working on redesigning my library’s website. We’re looking for images to use in our rolling banner. We’re looking at other pages for other departments and come across a really lovely picture of the quad with students on it, having lunch, studying away. It’s on the department’s homepage, the one visitors will look at and say, “Ooh, how nice.” After a few seconds, someone in the group asks, “Were there ever any trees there?” And we all look closer and then we feel… well, what do we feel?

A few trees added to make the quad look nicer (nicer than it’s ever looked, but…). No harm, no foul. It’s like the three hamsters in tea cups. I mean, it’s pretty easy to tell it’s the same darned hamster copied and pasted three times over. It’s cute. It’s fun. It’s a joke. So the department’s website is a joke, too? You tell me.

2. Wikipedia

People trust Wikipedia. There are have been stories and interviews ad nauseum on the topic of its credibility. I regularly see medical students with a page from Wikipedia open on the PC in front of them as I walk through the library. Not a big deal, I guess, if you’re looking for some basic info or perhaps a nice diagram. I recently had some surgery and one of the best diagrams of the artery involved in my surgery, I found on Wikipedia. It made it easy to share with family members or friends who wondered what and where the celiac artery was. In fact, there was a nice, condensed version (questionably lifted from an uncredited source) of the condition I had. Again, I had several very good journal articles from reputable society publications that I could pass along to others, but Wikipedia was a lot easier and just the right amount of information to share.

However, here’s a little snippet from an interview with the singer-songwriter, Lisa Hannigan, that I read last night before going to sleep:

Not everything is “perfect” in Hannigan’s world – her Wikipedia page, for one. “There’s so much misinformation about me there,” says Hannigan, sweetly. “Especially, all the stuff about me and Damien [Rice]. There was all this speculation about us after I left his band. [Hannigan sang with the singer-songwriter from 2001-2007. They also had a romantic relationship.] And all these supposed bad feelings and broken hearts. It was weird, but we sorted it out ages ago. Anyway, I wanted to change all the stuff about that on my Wiki page. But my page lady said, ‘Oh, it’s a conflict of interest for you to write your own stuff. And besides, the amount you want to change is too much!’ So, I’m stuck with all this stuff that isn’t true. Yes, my reign of terror against them has just begun.

Lisa Hannigan: Road Songs, by Peter Gerstenzang, Nov/Dec 2011 Issue, American Songwriter

You tell me, what do you do with these two examples? How can you reconcile them? How do you teach the credibility of sources? I’m still working out how I’m going to bring this example into my next lecture on such for a group of students. And I will. In the meantime, I’d love to hear others’ thoughts.

3. Google

I refuse to go into any diatribe, pro or con, about the role and place of Google in our information searching behavior. I’m done with that. I simply want to present here something I read this morning in the book, Every Patient Tells a Story, by Lisa Sanders, M.D.

I picked up a copy of this book and had the author sign it when she spoke at the Annual Meeting of the North Atlantic Health Sciences Libraries a couple of weeks ago. Physician, professor, author, oft-sought-after speaker, and technical advisor to the television show, “House, M.D.”, Sanders’ book is an expansion on a column she’s written regularly for the New York Times Magazine over the past several years. (For more on Sanders, see this NPR story.) I’m only a few chapters into it, but it’s a good read. And she was a good speaker. But here you go… page 12:

Hsia (a first year resident at Yale) posed the question to the team. Neither had heard of such a syndrome. So, after the team had finished seeing all the patients they were caring for, Hsia hurried to find a computer. She went to Google and entered “persistent nausea improved by hot showers.” She hit the enter key and less than a second later the screen was filled with references to a disease Hsia had never heard of: cannabinoid hyperemesis – persistent and excessive vomiting (hyperemesis) associated with chronic marijuana use (cannabinoid).

So this admission wasn’t the first for this patient. She’d seen multiple doctors, received multiple diagnoses, and been given a plethora of treatments over the previous twelve months, all to no avail. Her chart was thick. The resident read all of it first. Maybe all of the doctors who saw the patient before had done some credible research on the case. Maybe not. We don’t know. All we know is the pattern of information searching by the doctor presented in this paragraph. All we know is that she went to Google and in less than a second had the right answer that had eluded everyone else up to that point.

Again, or perhaps for the third time, what to do with this? As a practitioner, consumer, producer, and teacher of how to seek, find, evaluate and use information, I’m left right now with only one really definite feeling – “It’s a conundrum.”


Tim the Toolman

September 28, 2011

We Wear Many Hats

I wasn’t a faithful follower of the television show, “Home Improvement”, but I caught enough episodes of it over the years to know that Tim (the Toolman) was the face of the show-within-a-show, Tool Time, while Al, his sidekick, was the individual who actually knew how to use the tools they talked about. While Tim was skilled in talk and sales, Al was skilled in carpentry or plumbing or electrical work or whatever the topic and/or tool of the show was. Tim though, with his access to the tools, liked to believe he was also skilled in them. The fact that he didn’t actually have the foggiest notion of how to operate the gazillion watt drill made, of course, for pretty funny physical comedy and sight gags.

I know everyone is guilty of being Tim the Toolman at some time or another. I once purchased a Kitchen Aid stand mixer and a Julia Child cookbook on baking that told me there are really only like eight different doughs one needs to master in order to be a great baker. I had the instructions and I had the tool. What more did I need? Suffice it to say, I was frustrated before getting half-way through my very first attempt at the flaky dough recipe. I swore and cried and gave up. Thank goodness my partner, Lynn, is a very good cook and thus our pricey stand mixer has hardly gone to waste.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Tim the Toolman lately. Well, maybe not literally, but figuratively. I thought of him yesterday as I sat in a meeting at work and we discussed the publication of our new eJournal. I’m really excited about this and had really been the one lobbying and hoping for us to take on such a task for some time. As we talked about the review process for articles and the subsequent editing that would follow, we started to raise some questions and state some facts that reminded me of something I heard from one of the publishers at a conference on library publishing that I attended last spring. I cannot quote the person verbatim, but his sentiment was this… just because you have a lot of exposure to something, it doesn’t make you an expert in it. In other words, just because librarians know a lot about the publishing business from our purview as librarians, this does not make us publishers. Just because we have a tool that allows us to publish electronic journals, it’s important to remember that we don’t necessarily know how.

Libraries and/or librarians are hardly alone in this behavior, though. In many ways, it’s a behavior born of survival. There ARE things that we need to do in our profession to keep it relevant and we don’t necessarily have the time, effort or money to learn everything we need to know to accomplish them. Likewise, it’s quite frightening to come to grips with the notion that what we do know professionally is no longer what we need to know for the future. Do we change library school curricula or do we change the library, i.e. the make-up of the professional staff who work there? It’s not an easy question to answer, yet for librarians in particular, I believe it’s one we need to address. Here’s why…

I know of few, if any, other professions that get SO offended when people assume that they know how to do our work. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear a colleague say and/or see a colleague post online how frustrated they are that students think they know how to search for information better than librarians do. We go so far, in health science librarianship, to call ourselves “expert searchers”, meaning we really  know how to search PubMed. We know it! Those 1st year med students do not know what they’re talking about. They search everything like it’s Google. Google… the bane of every librarians existence.  The tool that started this entire wave of false thinking. Google… the tool that searches the internetz. And once everyone had the tool, everyone knew how search. Curse you, Google!

THIS is why I believe that librarians, the defenders of good searching and quality information seeking behavior, need to stop assuming that we know how to do other things simply because we have the tools, too. It is offensive to those who really do know what they are doing.

Lynn worked for many years as a graphic designer for a number of different commercial printers. She started this kind of work in a day when artists spent about a week drawing, by hand, a barcode. They had to draw it on a much exaggerated scale and to very, very precise measurements to that it would work when shrunk to the normal size. She did layouts for magazines and brochures and newsletters long before things like Microsoft Publisher or Adobe InDesign existed, or at least were made affordable to the general public. She was a professional designer and deserved to be paid in accordance with the her degree of skill and professionalism. Over time though, as PCs made their way to everyone’s desktops and, much like Google, Microsoft took over the arena for office productivity tools, her skill was slowly pushed aside. People came to the printer with their business cards ready to be printed. They came with their church newsletters nicely formatted in a Word Perfect file. It didn’t matter if the individual used six different fonts or colors that would never print the same as the monitor screen displayed them. It didn’t matter that pictures were blurry, their resolution all messed up. It didn’t matter if there were typos. All that mattered is that people had the tool, and thus they believed they had the skill to use it. And as business owners most often HAVE to be concerned more about the bottom line of profit, sometimes at the expense of the quality of the ultimate output, they are more than happy to save the money of paying a designer anymore. (And the same difficult decisions face library directors, school board administrators, town council members, and representatives in Congress.)

Blogs allow us to write to an audience about politics or sports. Bingo! I’m a journalist. Doodling software lets us draw cartoons. Ta da! I’m a cartoonist. I can buy software or go to a website to create a will and just like that, I’m doing the work of an estate lawyer. I know all about accounting because I use TurboTax. I know all about managing a football team because I’m in a fantasy league.

Hopefully, you see the point. This kind of thinking and behavior is hardly confined to the world of libraries and librarians, but as we are so in tune to it and so negatively affected by it, I would like to hope that we, as a group, can stop partaking in it. As a librarian, I want to stop offending my friends who have spent years becoming expert educators by thinking that just because I’m charged to teach a class, I automatically know what I’m doing (something that I wish the vast majority of people in higher education would admit, too). I want to stop offending my artist friends that because I can put together a subject guide using LibGuides, that I’m a website designer. And I want to put aside any notion whatsoever that just because I can read and write, that I can, by default, edit. I cannot.

In the same way, of course, I hope others will stop doing the same to me and others in my profession. We do actually have a sophisticated skill set – admittedly, a skill set that I believe needs to be revamped and expanded, but a skill set all the same.

  • Dear young student or experienced doctor, please realize that we DO truly know a thing or two about how to navigate and best use the tools that we have spent time and effort honing our skills toward. We know how and what needs to be done so that information can be better found and better accessed.
  • Dear researcher, I have personally spent 5+ years following the issue of NIH funding and public access to published literature. I guarantee you that I know the subject better than you. Let me help you. Let me do what I do best and I promise to let you do the same.

There are so many different hats to wear, but we all have only one head. True, some people ARE really good at wearing multiple hats. Some people ARE skilled in multiple areas. When this is the case, we’re all the better for working with such folks, but when it’s not – and most often, we’re not – it’s much more productive to learn to work together with others who do know what we don’t. It’s a sign of respect, not to mention a much better way to achieve success.

(These thoughts arose over lunchtime after seeing a post from a Library Director that I know who posed the question on her Facebook page, “How do you imagine the health sciences library of the future?” This is my answer. It’s a place of mixed skills and talent, not just librarians.)


What’s in a Name?

September 6, 2011

A few weeks back, a very nice librarian from a large university in the Midwest came to speak to a group of us in my own library who are involved in eScience. For the sake of the reader, I’ll spare the details of what eScience is and what libraries/librarians are doing in this field. Besides, it’s not necessary in order to understand the point of this post.

This very nice librarian gave a very nice presentation about some of the projects being undertaken at his library. Good stuff, interesting projects, new and relevant things, and a lot of takeaways for work we’re doing in my library. But I got stuck on the slide where he outlined the staff working on said stuff, including himself. His job title: Research Data Scientist.

And so here is my point: A research librarian is not a research scientist, even if s/he stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night.

Calling one’s self something isn’t all that it takes to make it so. I know there’s a tendency within our media culture to repeat things over and over and over again, believing that such insidious repetition will in fact give the thing credence, but really all it does is give one a headache. And a deep desire to tune out.

So I asked the very nice librarian why his job title is “Research Data Scientist” instead of the more appropriate, “Research Data Librarian”. He referenced a text on the subject of scientific data management where the term “Research Data Scientist” was used and said that there was agreement among his library’s administration that the role described in the book for this position was exactly what librarians do, i.e. “We add value to the data.”

All well and good, and most importantly, true, but my unvoiced follow-up question is this:

If what a research data scientist does is exactly what a librarian does, then why not simply call the position research data librarian? Why is “scientist” chosen over “librarian”? The consensus wasn’t “That’s exactly what scientists do,” but “That’s exactly what librarians do.”

A parallel thought came to me over the weekend as I saw numerous ads in a magazine offering certification in becoming a Celebrant. In case you’re unfamiliar, per the Celebrant Institute, “Celebrants are people in your community who are trained to officiate at, compose and perform the highest quality personalized ceremonies for couples, individuals and organizations.” In a former career, I officiated and performed very personal ceremonies for any number of occasions from weddings to funerals to commitment ceremonies to Gay Pride events. You know what I was called?

A minister.

So is there some relationship between librarians and ministers, something that makes it so that when people decide they want to do whole or part of these vocations, they feel the need to call themselves something else? Have we done something to offend, we librarians and ministers? Are they so out of date and out of touch that we just don’t want to be associated with such labels anymore?

I don’t know, but I do wonder.


Practice Makes Perfect Permanence

July 13, 2011

Two sayings, each with truth:

  • “Practice makes perfect.”
  • “Practice makes permanent.”

The first is familiar to most. We’ve heard it often. Anyone subjected to insert musical instrument lessons knows the answer to the question, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Practice, practice, practice. The second, interestingly enough, I learned from a musical instrument instructor, a mandolin teacher I had once. His point – practice the wrong things, the wrong way, and you’ll end up permanently doing things wrong.

The common denominator of both sayings though, obviously, is that in order to get really good at anything (correctly or not) is to practice. A lot. Lots of people are richly talented. They come out of the womb with innate abilities to do things – draw, write, make music, understand quantum physics. We often see them perform or see the results of their talent and think to ourselves, “I could never do that.” There’s surely some truth to that saying, too. Sometimes. Talent is a gift to be thankful for and some are blessed with more of it than others. Still, I think sometimes we sell both ourselves and those talented people short in that we forget to recognize the really important role that practice plays in bringing out the full richness of one’s talent(s).

This morning, before getting out of bed, I finished Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle. I’ll not comment on the book here except to say it is, all at once, incredible and unbelievable, hopeful and infuriating. It’s definitely worth reading. But what I thought about as I closed the cover, got dressed, and took Zeb for his morning walk, was how Jeannette Walls became such a good writer. She had a story to tell, for sure, but she tells it well because she’s a good writer and she became a good writer by first reading and then writing. A lot.

As a child, she (as well as her parents and siblings) devoured books. She read and read and read. She describes fond memories of her family sitting together in the living room of some shack they occupied at the time, all reading together. They didn’t watch TV together – in part because they had no television, let alone any electricity to run one – but instead sat together, each in their own world of whatever story they were reading at the time. And she loved this.

As she entered high school, she started working on the school paper. She started editing and typesetting. She started writing. She wrote about everything. Hardly any other students wanted to work on the paper and so she wrote the stories of football games, class events and school board decisions. She left West Virginia as a teenager to join her older sister in New York City and soon found a job writing for a weekly paper there. She wrote and wrote and wrote, as she had read and read and read, and in doing so the talent that she discovered at 13 or so, developed and ultimately became her livelihood and her career. She is a writer.

The same story line can be traced for practically anyone who has become really good at what they do. How many millions of hours has your favorite musician practiced? What artist is ever found without a sketchbook in his or her bag? The Dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences where I work always has a nice black Moleskin notebook with him whenever I see him (I have a thing for journals and take note when I see one), as do others I know who think a lot, ask questions a lot, and try to solve problems a lot.

Scientists do a thousand experiments that go wrong before they experience the “Aha!” moment. Julia Child likely went through skeins of twine before she could tie that chicken up just right. Really good baseball players “only” hit .300 and no one’s come close to a .400 season in a long, long time now. That’s a lot of strikeouts and a lot of ground balls and a lot of pop ups in between the singles and the homeruns.

I may never write as well as Annie Dillard, play the mandolin like Chris Thile, run a marathon as fast as Joan Benoit Samuelson, or even be a library director like Jean Shipman – all people I admire for how they do what they do. But to say one will never be something without putting in the practice is much different than saying so while at the same time, showing up every day and working hard at what you enjoy and want to do.

So now I’ll head to work in the library where I’ve an article to finish, knowing that I’ve primed my writing brain by taking some time this morning for reading and writing. I’ll draw some pictures during lunch. I’ll slog through another slow, slow pace as I put in the miles training for the Chicago Marathon this fall. And then I’ll watch the recap of today’s Tour de France stage while I practice over and over that little riff Howie showed me on my mandolin. And it’ll be a good day.

Here’s hoping you have the same.


I’m ready for my profile…

July 12, 2011

I’m working on an article this morning for an upcoming edition of “Against the Grain”. My article, “Assembling the orchestra: The role of librarians in an eScience environment”, is coming together a bit more clumsily than the requested author profile. The article has a 2,000 word limit, including the profile, so now I’m wondering if I can split it evenly between the two subjects – me and eScience.

Sally A. Gore
Head, Research and Scholarly Communication Services
Lamar Soutter Library, University of Massachusetts Medical School
55 Lake Ave., N; Worcester, MA 01655
(508) 856-1966
sally(dot)gore(at)umassmed(dot)edu

Born and lived: I was born in Fredericksburg, VA and grew up in Petersburg, VA. The first three decades of my life were spent in the south, but I’ve lived in New England since the early 90s.

Early life: Happy kid

Professional career and activities:
I’ve had two somewhat formal careers; as an ordained minister and as a librarian, and some side ventures into exercise physiology, volunteer coordination, non-profit work, office work, log flume operator, etc.

Family: I live with my spouse, Lynn, our dog, Zebediah, and our cat, Tater.

In my spare time: I play the mandolin, do art, maintain my blogs (blahg, blahg, blagh and  Button a Day), ride my scooter, listen to a lot of music, read a lot of books, watch a lot of movies, and exercise not enough.

Favorite books: “Lying Awake” by Mark Salzman, “Dove” by Robin Lee Graham, and any and everything by Annie Dillard

Pet peeves: Motorized lawn tools, litter, and the phrase, “It just can’t be done”.

Philosophy: “Father, forgive us for what we must do, you forgive us and we’ll forgive you. We’ll forgive each other ‘til we both turn blue, then we’ll whistle and go fishin’ in heaven.” (John Prine)

Most memorable career achievement: Still waiting for it – to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. (Being a panelist on the national MLA Webcast was pretty cool, though.)

Goal I hope to achieve five years from now: To be in a position where I positively influence the overall direction of our profession, either as a library director or a consultant. If this doesn’t pan out, I’m hoping to play the mandolin for Rosanne Cash.

How/where do I see the industry in five years: I hope to see our profession expanding, becoming more and more entrepreneurial and creative, so that we’re seen as an equal and integral partner in information creation, organization, and access, rather than solely a support service. I’d love to see us get out of the “middle man” position, to stop hanging our hats (and our value) on simply providing resources and focus more on creating them ourselves via new modes of publication, repositories, web tools, apps, and more.