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.”