A New Age for Librarianship?

July 17, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Posted in Meetings, Professional Development | 2 Comments

Look who I met! Dubs, the mascot of University of Washington. Woohoo!! (or should I say, “WOOF!”?)

[Submitted by Sally Gore, Head, Research & Scholarly Communications Services, Lamar Soutter Library, UMass Medical School and Chair-Elect for NAHSL]

Thank you to the Professional Development Committee of NAHSL for providing me with a scholarship to attend the annual meeting of the Medical Library Association held in Seattle in May. This was my 7th MLA meeting (I’ve attended each one, with the exception of Honolulu, since entering the profession in 2005) and if I put them to a vote, 2012 would win for the best in terms of plenary sessions, group meetings, section programs, and location. AND not to be dismissed, of course, FUN! There was plenty of fun. I’m lucky to have several colleagues in the Seattle area who I really and truly enjoy. Getting to spend some time with them in their town during and after the meeting (I spent a few days sightseeing afterward) made the trip just delightful.

As a brief recap before I get into the real thought of this post, I want to recommend two books and one presentation that came out of the Meeting. The first of these is Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From. Johnson delivered the John P. McGovern Award Lecture and while he devoted some of the talk to the story of John Snow’s epidemiological research that ultimately led to discovering the source of London’s 1854 cholera epidemic (the subject of his 2006 book, The Ghost Map, also recommended reading), I was taken by his points relating to the more recent Good Ideas. In summary, he stated that ideas are networks and don’t “come out of solitary light bulbs.” He also stressed that the “Eureka!” moment is really a myth. The “slow hunch” is more truthful to how great ideas emerge and the environment in which such hunches grow is one where we stick with things, where we quit rushing through everything that comes our way as if it’s just one more thing to check off the list. Patience, persistence, perseverance are qualities to foster, now more than ever. When I got home from Seattle, I checked Good Ideas out from my public library and read it. It was a good idea and I’m glad I followed through on it. (For a quick summary, check out Johnson’s TED Talk.)

The next recommendation comes from Wednesday’s plenary, a lecture by the investigative journalist T.R. Reid. Reid has done extensive research and writing on the subject of health care systems around the world. His work was the subject of both a “Frontline” documentary, Sick Around the World, and the book, The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care. As we struggle with the issues of a broken health care system in the United States and the incessant rhetoric of politicians arguing rather than looking to solve problems (strictly my opinion here), Reid’s lecture – and his book – was a breath of fresh air. Filled with facts, his talk helped those of us in the audience to clearly understand the different systems that exist, the imperfections in each, and how it IS quite possible to create something in our own country that will be more efficient, more economical, and still be tops in terms of the level of research and health care possible. If you missed this lecture, do yourself a favor and watch the documentary and/or read the book. You’ll be better informed for doing so. (Here’s an interview with Reid on NPR’s “Fresh Air”.)

In this third highlight, I know that I’m not alone in my opinion. Mark Funk hit a home run with his Janet Doe Lecture. Much like his Presidential Address a few years ago, Mark was entertaining and insightful as he presented findings from a bit of bibliometric research he did as part of the Lecture’s award. In a nutshell, his work shows some really interesting findings regarding the words and topics, issues and gadgets, and trends and directions we’ve followed in our organization, based upon articles in JMLA, over the past years. (And yes, I would have both liked and found the lecture interesting whether he cited Gore et al, or not.)  Mark has generously made the lecture available online. Check it out. And enjoy a cookie while you do.

Janet Doe Lecture, MLA 2012 from Leavesamark on Vimeo.

And now, finally, if you’re still with me in this post, I want to share the thought that led me to give this post the title I chose. Part of my time at MLA involved me being invited to present during the NPC’s Section, From the Bench to the Field: Translational Research. We’ve enjoyed a good bit of success at my Library over the past year, forming a strong partnership with our Center for Translational Science that in turn has resulted in some exciting projects utilizing our institutional repository. I was really happy to be able to share these during my presentation.

Others on the panel spoke of developing unique methodologies and services to measure research impact (Washington University St. Louis), creating specific courses to help clinicians speak to patients about genetics (Vanderbilt University), researching the unique informational needs of clinical translational researchers (University of Florida), and providing an evidence-based approach to training researchers new to translational science (University of North Carolina). Each speaker shared of success in integrating the health sciences libraries into this rapidly growing area of science. Each speaker spoke about new services being delivered, new resources provided, and new collaborations built through these efforts.

As I stepped away from the program, my high-stress moment of the Meeting behind me, I took the time to reflect on some of the things that my colleagues and I had shared. The idea of success was nice, of course, but what struck me most, what kept coming back to my mind over and over (perhaps because I also kept noticing it in other programs and speakers and posters) was how NOBODY IS DOING THE SAME THING!

I think that perhaps there was a time when health sciences and medical libraries could look to each other to model their programs and services. Everyone managed the same general collection, everyone practiced cataloging using NLM’s subject headings, everyone delivered reference services and everyone taught classes on PubMed. Some of this remains the same, but more and more, I believe, we’re seeing what I’ve come to call the Postmodern Age of Librarianship. In other words, those things that once defined us and our reality are shifting. They are being deconstructed and put back together in ways that are deeply dependent upon the resources available to us in our particular institutions. Similarly, they are being shaped by the environments in which our libraries sit. The priorities, budgets, faculty, researchers and administrators of our respective institutions drive what we do. To some extent, this has always been the case, but the pressure seems at a higher level today than in years past.

We talk a lot about “emerging roles” in health sciences librarianship. One thing I’ve noticed is that in our discussions, we often focus on some area, one or two specific new roles, like data management planning in eScience or knowledge management in hospital libraries. I’m not arguing that examining, proposing, and training librarians for these areas isn’t warranted, but I do worry, based up what I observed at MLA, that a top-down approach to defining our services might not work in the future. Heck, it might not be working now! What I saw at MLA is that the most successful programs and services are those that are sprouting from the ground up; those that develop from the melding of the interests, skills and expertise of a library’s staff with the needs of its patrons.

The Translational Science Panel I was a part of showed that libraries with repositories are successful, libraries with patient education are successful, libraries with researcher training are successful, libraries doing research are successful, libraries measuring research are successful… each one is successful in serving the translational science community, but not a one is finding success in the same way! For me, one of the most interesting bits of information from our panel talks was one shared by Jennifer Lyon at the University of Florida; in their research, they found that while libraries were by and large omitted from the original processes of preparing CTSA proposals, when it came time for the first round of 5-year renewals, almost a quarter (23%) of the evaluation and preparation teams included members of the library in their makeup. The value of the library to the success of grant funding and more importantly, the outcomes of the funded research, is being seen. And perhaps more importantly still, from our professional perspective, this value is found spread across a wide spectrum of services and ultimately, opportunities.

On the one hand, it’s tremendously unsettling to be in an age without clearly defined roles, but on the other, a lack of definition provides us with all sorts of ways to smudge our way into new areas. If there’s one thing that I took away from the Meeting this year is that our profession has a long way to go. And that’s a good thing!



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  1. Great summary. Perhaps at a future Mahslin or Nahsl meeting you could share your experiences re Translational Science, since I’m in the dark on that topic, and suspect some others may be, too.

  2. Yes it is a great summary- and I attended those plenary sessions! This posting and others in fact, inspired me to consider attending the NASHL meeting this fall where I hope to find similar inspiration and sharing!

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