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.

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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.]


O’Dewey’s: A Fairy Tale

January 23, 2012

Librarian Barista and More

Once upon a time, in a medium-sized college town, an institution stood for generations. O’Dewey’s was founded by Sean O’Dewey in 1887 and for more than a century, passed from O’Dewey to O’Dewey, all the way to its current proprietor, Mary O’Dewey, who assumed the helm in 1992 when her father, Patrick, decided it was time that his daughter, the second-oldest of four children, take over the family business. Mary was the first of the female O’Dewey’s to ever run the business. It had caused a bit of eyebrow raising when Patrick announced he was bypassing Martin, his eldest, in favor of Mary, but over the years as the children were tutored in the ways of business, it was Mary who’d shown both the most interest and the most promise. Her father, without reservation, deemed her a worthy heir.

Now O’Dewey’s had a reputation, good and fair and well-earned over its many years standing proud in the corner closest to the campus quad. It was a place where students and faculty alike gathered. It was open long hours, always ready to welcome one in need of either a quiet place to sit (it had a room off of the main gathering space designated as such) or others looking for like souls to commiserate a tough exam, a difficult professor, or a paper due the next morning. Year after year, class after class, students spent countless hours at O’Dewey’s. It was the place to go on campus. It was a central happening spot.

Of course, the main fixture at O’Deweys was the bar that stood in the middle of the main room. It was in the shape of a square, a large square, thus offering four sides where people could pull up a stool and sit. You could order drinks and chat with Mary or Patrick or Sean or Ian, ask them questions, seek their advice. They knew a little bit about everything and if they didn’t know the answer, they surely knew who did. Each and every O’Dewey, with the exception of Seamus who appeared so inept at social skills he was relegated to the kitchen and charged with making sandwiches and soup and never speaking with customers, was a natural behind the bar. Each could tap a keg as equally as s/he could tap into some uncanny source of information. It was a combination that endeared them to the college community for what seemed like forever.

Still, even an institution as beloved and ingrained into the community as O’Dewey’s was not exempt from changes that inevitably come to society as time and progress march on. Since taking over the pub in the 90s, Mary worked hard to address the influx of technology that affected even an old watering hole. She installed booths, upgraded the electrical system to add more outlets, provided free wireless access, even started to serve micro-roasted coffee alongside the micro-brews. Lots of things changed at O’Dewey’s during her decades in charge, everything but the central tenet of the place – O’Dewey’s was the college community’s pub. They could serve all the foamy lattes they wished, provide the fastest connections available, but O’Dewey’s was, after all, O’Dewey’s Pub. That is what it was Sean started 100+ years ago and it’s what everyone – EVERYONE – assumed it to be. Always. A pub.

Mary and her family held onto this idea as strongly as the community. They held onto it as Starbuck’s opened on the same block. They believed it as the frat houses and dorms grew fancier and more hi-tech, placating students’ every desire for HD television and universal connectivity. They remained convinced that O’Dewey’s was the place to go – the only place to go – for the best beer and the best advice. They were in possession of both. Better than anyone else could ever be.

Despite competition from other bars and other entertainment sources, O’Dewey’s did well for a good, long while. It never seemed to fail that whenever they were experiencing a bit of a downturn in customers or activity, some alumni event would occur, some big game would be won, or some winter storm would hit that pushed people to the oldest, dearest, and closest spot to come together. And in their gathering, they remembered how much they loved the feelings the old pub prompted. People would laugh and tell stories, they’d order beer and listen to music, they’d say things like, “This is really how it should be.”

But soon enough, homecoming was over, the storm subsided, the season ended and life on campus resumed. Students, faculty and staff went about their very busy lives, going from place to place to place, whatever was most convenient for whatever they needed at the moment. That’s what mattered most. Convenience. And the changing times brought with them a whole host of things that made the niceties of O’Dewey’s, while still nice and still important, more convenient to get elsewhere. Cafes and coffee shops sprung up all over campus. Wireless access was everywhere. Kegs could be delivered to dorms for parties. Who needed a pub anymore?

Mary tried her best to both counter and ride the new trend. She tried starting book groups and posting an online community calendar where people could sign up to use the pub for organizing or study groups. She tried catering to parties on campus. She tried special events and giveaways. Some things worked and others failed miserably, but all in all, the pattern was that with each new thing O’Dewey’s tried, they’d see a small spike in their customers, but nothing that lasted. Mary and her siblings seemed at a loss as to what to do. What more could they offer? What else could they do? They were O’Dewey’s Pub. They were an institution. Why didn’t people see their value anymore?

Mary decided they needed better marketing. Quite obviously, people didn’t know everything that a pub had to offer them today. O’Dewey’s was NOT just about beer. Sure, they still served beer, but they had so much else to offer, too. If they could only get people to realize that “pub” meant more than “bar” things would be good again. They hired a small advertising firm to put together a campaign for them. A designer came up with a new logo showing a beer glass encircled by a globe, indicating a community and connectivity. They ran ads in the school paper and paid for spots during televised sporting events. They made t-shirts. They did anything and everything they could to remind people of the importance of O’Dewey’s, not just to the current students and faculty, but to students and faculty of the past, and students and faculty to come. Who could imagine the town, this campus without O’Dewey’s? It would simply never be the same.

One day, in the middle of putting out the new cork coasters with the new logo on the new touch-screen tables, Mary’s daughter Erin asked, “Mom, what do you think makes a pub a pub?” She scoffed a bit and said, “Well beer, of course, Erin.”

“Yes. I’d agree.”

“What are you getting at?”

“I was wondering if maybe, just maybe, we’ve gotten away from that. I’m wondering if we’ve become something else.”

“What are you saying? We’re not a pub?”

“No. We’re still a pub, but we’re also a lot more. People who come here regularly know that, but anybody else seeing ‘O’Dewey’s Pub’ thinks … pub. Why would anyone think to come to a pub for a book group?”

“So you’re suggesting we stop doing that? You think that we should simply go back to serving beer? Being a bar and nothing else?”

“That’s one option. The other is to change ourselves.”

“But we’ve done that. We’ve been doing that for years now. What more can we possibly change?”

“How about our name?”

“WHAT?! Not call ourselves O’Dewey’s?!”

“No. Not call ourselves a pub. Or at least call ourselves a pub and… something. Something else. Something that makes someone looking for a beer or a coffee or a group study spot or a sandwich or a free connection to the web or anything else we provide… well, it makes them know that we have those things. Pubs are about drinking and gathering. We are still that – we’ll always be that – but we need to let go of it as the only thing that we are.”

Mary looked at her daughter suspiciously, fearing that the next generation of O’Dewey’s marked the end of all she’d ever worked for, everything that her family meant. An O’Dewey was a bartender. She didn’t have any idea what her daughter was, nor could she believe she’d raised her. She shook her head, waved her off, and went back to updating ODeweys.com. “Crazy kid,” she thought. She’ll grow out of it.

 

Epilogue

In 2012, when she finished her degree, Erin O’Dewey opened “Erin’s Corner”. It quickly became one of the busiest gathering places near campus.


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!”

 

 


10 Notable Books that No One Wrote in 2011

December 8, 2011

[My “Presidential Piece” for the next MAHSLIN newsletter, posted here too because not all 7 fans of my writing are members of MAHSLIN.]

As we enter into December and the end of another calendar year, I can’t help but notice all of the “Best of…” lists that come out. There are the usual suspects; best movies, best books, best bands, and best CDs. We also celebrate the person of the year, the sportsperson of the year, the newsmaker of the year, and more. There’s always a great deal of discussion around these lists and no one ever comes up with any “top ten” that everyone can possibly agree upon. To address this conundrum and avoid any ugly altercations over what constitutes “best”, I decided to create a different kind of “Best of” list – the made-up kind. Thus, I present for you now, the 10 Best Books of 2011 that No One Wrote:

  • THE ART OF FIELDING REFERENCE QUESTIONS, by Chad Harbinger

The library of a small college town in Wisconsin sees its fate play out with the arrival of a new librarian, supremely gifted in the art of getting to the heart of any patron’s question with charm, grace and, to the consternation of his colleagues, great speed. Harbinger brings to life a story of talent, ambition, and the human passion for greatness that can bring strife and envy to even the most tranquil of settings.

  • STACKLANDIA!, by Karen Rustling

Towering compact shelving, rows of study carrels, haunting spirits and dead poets all come into play as a young girl tries desperately to cope with the grief of losing her family to electronic media. Rustling gives us a page-turner in this, her first novel. You will not soon forget the wisdom and bravery of her young heroine.

  • THINKING FAST, AND FASTER STILL, by Daniel Cancatchem

Cancathem, a 2002 Nobel Prize Winner for his work in economics, gives a sharply worded rebuke of those who would claim that life in the fast lane will kill you. We underestimate the value of all the things we cannot possibly remember. “The flood of irrelevant information will drown you, only if you resist,” he harkens.

  • LEXICONMIX, by Apostolos Dexterous

Covering several centuries, the graphic novel Lexiconmix was inspired by the epic story of Google’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Beginning with their introduction of a nonsensical word to everyday language, the story unfolds as the two idealistic mathematicians give all of themselves to their quest, resulting ultimately in great personal wealth, but alas, insanity.

  • THE LEFTOVERS AT THE FRONT DESK, by Tom Perogies

With a nod to science fiction, Perogies takes the Biblical story of the Rapture and turns it into quite the joy ride as doctors, nurses, students, and every working party known suddenly vanishes from a hospital, leaving the library staff to care for the patients left behind with them. Part fantasy, part humor, part inspiration, “Leftovers” shows just how far people really can go to help one another.

  • CALLIMACHUS: A Life Sacred and Profane, by Andrew Melville-Dewey

Noted poet, critic and scholar at the Library of Alexandria, Callimachus is credited with producing the first bibliographic survey of a library collection. His work, while held as a magnificent contribution to the field of information management, was also influenced by the fact that he was continually passed over when it came to the appointment of the Chief Librarian. His resentments seep through in the cataloging, most notably in his critique of Homer, whom he frequently called a “one hit wonderboy”.

  • IS THAT A FISH IN YOUR LAPTOP? Translation and the Meaning of Everything, by David Bellows

A scholar argues that the translation and meaning of words need not be the same, nor even in the same realm, thus explaining, in a most amusing way, why very little at work makes sense some days.

  • A WORLD ON FILE, by Amanda Formal

Just what side DID the Hospital CEO come down on when it came to choosing between the medical library and information services? Formal gives us a work filled with characters you love one moment and despise the next. Her vivid descriptions of hospital administration and politics are gripping, and her examination of where and how the money goes is spellbinding.

  • THE DIRECTOR’S TIGER, by Téa Time

A farcical romp; a library turned upside down when the small kitten adopted as the new “library kitty” turns out to be a bit more than expected.

  • THE FREE WORLDCAT, by David Bezeebee

Bezeebee topples the doubts of the deepest skeptic as he describes the story of the little catalog that could. From its humble roots as a bookmobile in Ohio, to its world dominance of integrated library systems, “WorldCat” inspires the reader to keep searching for that ever elusive dream.

Thanks to friends and colleagues who suggested their favorite books of the past year, the NY Times’ “100 Notable Books of 2011,” and a December deadline for the inspiration for this piece. Any resemblance to any actual title and author is… obvious. And, of course, meant in good fun.

Happy Holidays and all the Best in 2012!


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.


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.