A Sheep in Sheep’s Clothing

28 May

[Alternate Title: The Sheep that Wags the Wolf’s Tail]

Photo Credit:  petsadviser.com

Photo Credit: petsadviser.com

A few years back, I made a deal with a friend to run the Chicago Marathon. I’d run several marathons previously, but none in a number of years. I was nowhere near the shape I wanted to be in when I made the deal and as both my friend and I were trying to be healthy, it was a win-win situation. At least it seemed that way. I trained in the winter, indoors on the treadmill. Once spring came, I moved outside. Week after week, I slogged through, never feeling like I was gaining any stamina, losing any weight, or getting any healthier. As summer came along and I started to stretch out my miles, I found myself getting pretty sick after running. I couldn’t eat anything without having serious digestive troubles. It got to the point that after running I’d stick with a smoothie and not much else. Even that didn’t always go well. I’d never had this experience in past training and kept chalking it up to being out of shape.

Then, one Friday evening I went for a 12 mile run – struggling through it as my gut rebelled against me. I finally finished, stopped by the 7-11 for a Gatorade, and drove home. After showering, I had a smoothie and settled in to watch the Red Sox. Next thing I knew, I was on the floor of my bathroom and next after that in an ambulance to the emergency room. I’d never been in an ambulance before – and that’s about the only positive I can think of regarding the experience.

After a night in the ER, tests that revealed nothing much, trips to my doc and a couple of specialists, the vascular surgeon told me that he suspected I had celiac artery compression syndrome (or median arcuate ligament syndrome). He also said, as I described my symptoms related to running with him, that he’d never heard of it being associated with exercise.

Being the medical librarian that I am, I set about searching PubMed (now that I knew some terms to search) to learn about what was going on inside of me. Mostly, I was looking for something that would link my training with this syndrome. Lo and behold, I found one. One. That was it. One case study about one individual – an elite runner who’d suffered something similar to what I was experiencing. Granted, I was hardly “elite” in my running, but the symptoms and situations described for this runner were just what kept happening to me.

I promptly sent a copy of the article to my surgeon and then, a couple of weeks later when I was wheeled into the operating room for an arteriogram to confirm his diagnosis, he said to everyone in the room, “If you have any questions, ask Sally. She’s read more about this than you have.” (Though fortunately not more than my surgeon!)

This is a long, round-about story to demonstrate a point – when it comes to evidence, a case study that resonates with you, the individual, is worth as much as any randomized control trial.

Evidence-based practice is THE term in medicine today. As noted by Stewart Donaldson, Christina Christie, and Melvin Mark in the introduction to their book, “What Counts as Credible Evidence in Applied Research and Evaluation Practice?” we live in an evidence-based society. Evidence-based medicine, evidence-based mental health, evidence-based management, evidence-based decision making, evidence-based education, evidence-based coaching, evidence-based policy, evidence-based sex education, evidence-based fill-in-any-blank are just some of the examples they list from a quick Google search of “evidence-based practice”. For those of us who have taught any course related to evidence-based practice, we know all about the EBM Pyramid and the hierarchy of quality when it comes to evidence. At the top of the pyramid sits the randomized control trial and systematic reviews. Further down, the anecdotal case study. In other words, something happening to one or two people – like me and that other runner – simply doesn’t qualify as enough evidence to state that there is any connection between exercise and celiac artery compression syndrome.

Except when it is enough. As it is/was for the two of us (and no doubt a few others).

I found myself thinking often of my personal case history and the evidence-based pyramid during a number of sessions that I attended during last week’s annual meeting of the Medical Library Association. Why? Well, mostly because I attended a lot of talks on the new roles that librarians and other professionals working within libraries, i.e. PhDs in bioinformatics, are assuming today. People are doing an awful lot of interesting things related to specialized services. I count myself in that lot. I may well be an evaluator now, but I personally think it’s simply an extension of the specialized work that I was doing in the library. But the thing that I kept noticing – and a point I raised in one of the sessions – was when, if ever, will we get past case studies related to these services? When, if ever, will we be able to say as a profession that the successful new roles and services that some libraries are offering today are roles and services that can be adopted broadly? When, if ever, will we have enough evidence that demonstrates the success is based more on the service and the role, and less upon the individual delivering it?

Watching Twitter throughout the meeting, I noticed one person tweet a picture of a slide from Bart Ragon’s (University of Virginia) presentation, “Where is My Data Scientist?” (Disclaimer: I was in a different session at the time, thus am taking Bart’s slide out of context.) The slide read, “Unless you are Kristi Holmes or Michele Tennant – Most librarians lack any of these skills.” For those less familiar with MLA, for many years, Kristi (formerly at Washington University, St. Louis, now the Library Director of Galter Health Science Library, Northwestern University) and Michele (University of Florida) were known as the two PhD biochemistry people in our midst. They were anomalies; scientists working in medical libraries. Today we have more – Jackie Wirz at Oregon Health Sciences University, Meng Li and Yibu Chen at the University of Southern California, and Tobin Magle at the University of Colorado Denver to name a few – but they still remain oddities.

When I asked the panel of Kristi, Tobin, Jackie, Meng, and Jerry Perry (former director of UC-Denver’s medical library, soon to be the same at the University of Arizona’s health sciences library) this question about case studies versus a broader body of evidence, Jackie admitted that sometimes she does wonder if people call on her because they think “Jackie can help” or if they think the bigger, “the library can help.” I don’t mean to suggest that the two are mutually exclusive, but how much are our trends towards specialized services redefining the health sciences/medical library profession, as a whole, and how much are they simply taking advantage of particular individuals and the strengths, expertise, etc. they bring to a particular library?

One of the bits of advice that Kristi Holmes offered during this session was, “Build the best library for your institution, thus what works here may not work there.” It’s hard to argue that this isn’t good advice, yet at the same time I can’t help but wonder about how well it sums up our future as a profession. It’s becoming more and more specialized, more and more individualized, and the parts aren’t easily interchangeable anymore. This can be either good or bad for us. Thinking to what Mae Jemison said in her McGovern Lecture (I wrote about this for the NAHSL blog and will share the link when it’s published), innovation is not inherently good or bad; progressive or regressive. It’s the choices that we make around our innovations, our new ideas, our new roles, and our new services that ultimately make the difference.

I’m a librarian with the title of “Evaluator” sitting in an office in the UMass Center for Clinical and Translational Science. Jackie Wirz is a PhD biochemist and molecular biologist with the title “Biomedical Research Specialist” and an office in the OHSU library. What do we have in common? What do we do that can be teased out, taught to others, and adopted by other libraries, centers, or institutions? To me, that’s a BIG question and something worth continuing to try and answer/address as our profession continues to redefine itself for the future (and now).

Austin Or Bust!

15 May

It’s one of my FAVORITE times of the year, the time to attend the Annual Meeting of the Medical Library Association. This year’s meeting is in Austin, Texas and its theme is “Librarians Without Limits.” I can’t wait to visit Austin and I love the theme. As a music lover, particularly Western Swing music, and a librarian who no longer works in a library or even goes by any job title close to “librarian,” the meeting seems to have been made for me! I’ve got a schedule planned out that’s filled with interesting sessions about non-traditional roles, plus a different music venue picked out for each night. Oh, it’s gonna be goooood!!

I’ll be tweeting throughout the meeting (follow along at #mlanet15 and/or @mandosally) and will also be sure to share more than a couple of thoughts and nuggets of inspiration that I experience next week. Until then …

… let’s get to Texas!!

Taking Inventory

7 May

I was invited to present a webinar to a group of military medical librarians. Originally, back in 2011 when I first got the invitation, I was going to offer up something related to eScience (based on a webinar I’d done for the NN/LM GMR around that time). A few hiccups along the way and the event got put aside for a few years. When the organizer came back to me late last year, I said that I was happy to still present, but that my job was different now. We decided upon the topic of transition in health sciences librarianship, i.e. how the profession is changing and how librarians within it can change, too. Here’s what I came up with:

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While my job title has changed many times over the past ten years, most noticeably last December when I moved from the UMMS Library to the UMass Center for Clinical and Translational Science, I still think of myself as a librarian. I’ve done many things under that umbrella – tackled all kinds of projects and honed many skills. That’s one of the best parts about being an information professional today. Information drives so much of everything. The more you can learn, adapt, refocus, redefine, etc., the better off you’ll be in terms of having a fulfilling and enjoyable career – either within the walls of a library or not.

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I heard a great presentation at MAHSLIN’s Annual Meeting last week by Jean Shipman, Director of the Spencer S. Eccles Library at the University of Utah School of Medicine (stay tuned for the sketchnotes). Besides the content – applying Lean process improvement principles to projects in her library – what I liked was how Jean structured her talk around 4 case studies. Her presentation followed another terrific one by Varang Parikh, Senior Process Improvement Specialist at UMass Memorial Healthcare. Varang covered the theory and then Jean offered some real-life examples from her library.

As I thought about how to structure my own talk, I thought about how there’s a lot of theory and a lot of talk about transitioning within the profession of librarianship. It’s helpful. What’s also helpful are some concrete examples, thus I decided to follow Jean’s lead and offer up myself as a case study for my talk.

I’ve worked for UMass Medical School for over 10 years. In that time, I can identify 5 distinct roles and/or jobs and/or titles and/or transitions within my career. I often tell people that this is the longest that I’ve ever worked at any one place, not to mention the longest that I’ve ever worked in any one profession. I think that the fact that I’ve been able to assume so many different roles is what’s made that possible. Who can get bored when you’re regularly doing something new?

So in my 10 years, I’ve been a consumer health librarian, a reference librarian, a research and scholarly communications librarian, an informationist, and now a research evaluation analyst. But remember what I said earlier, for me these are all facets of the same profession – librarianship and/or information science. They’re all about dealing with information, that’s the common denominator.

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In each of these roles, I gained some knowledge and skills. I decided to take an inventory of these things, to see where they built upon one another or carried over from one role to the next. As a consumer health librarian, working on the projects, “MedlinePlus Go Local Massachusetts” and “eMental Health of Central Massachusetts,” I was able to both put to good use a  bunch of things I’d learned in library school (this was my first job after graduating), as well as add some new skills to my toolbox.

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The same thing happened, a couple of years later, when I got to move from being a grant-funded librarian to a full-time staff person. As a reference librarian (something I’d been doing all along, but now more formally), I added to my skill set, essentially adding to my value as a librarian.

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As a research and scholarly communications librarian, I had the chance to do more of the same. I also learned during this time that I didn’t like administration. I don’t do it well, at least not in the context where I was working. I recently saw a colleague who’s moved from administration to teaching and data services in her library. We talked about how it’s hard in our world to not be made to feel like you’re somehow failing and/or taking a step backwards to not be an administrator. Supervision and management, for better or worse, is seen as the one “promotion” in many a business, including higher ed. It’s too bad, since we all know that there are many, many ways to improve in your career without taking that path. But alas, it’s our world. And I share this as encouragement for anyone who’s happy and content finding their professional way along a path that doesn’t necessarily go up a corporate ladder.

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As in embedded research librarian and informationist, I gained a whole big grab bag of new skills. In many ways, it’s the transition that transitioned me most. If you read this blog with any sense of regularity, you know how all of these new skills and knowledge and projects emerged. And from them, I inventoried this nice list …

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When I added all of these lists together, when I took my inventory of all of the librarian skills I’ve gained the past years, I was amazed. Whenever I teach library school students, I encourage them to start their list now. I offer the same idea/advice to seasoned veterans. Think of all of the things you’ve done in your work and all of the resulting skills gained. Write them down. Take an inventory. You’ll be amazed, too.

But more, my inventory was put to the test last year when I decided to take my skill set beyond the library altogether. When I applied for the position in the UMCCTS, I had to make the case that all of those library and information and data management skills made me well-prepared to take on the role of a research evaluation analyst. It wasn’t the easiest sell, either, but fortunately I’d also learned perseverance when it comes to making this argument. It’s something we’ve been doing for a long time now, as we’re continually put into the position of demonstrating our relevance and value. So, when our HR department asked me to map my very librarian-centric CV to the job requirements listed in the position announcement, I offered them this:

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This was the job listing.

And these were my “maps”:

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All I did for these was pull pieces from my CV and put them with the requirements. It was a great exercise (beyond landing me the job), because it forced me to prove what I’d been saying for awhile – that the skill set of a librarian, by any name, is pretty darned valuable and can offer a person any number of opportunities.

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And of course, I’m still learning. My new job is filled with new challenges (opportunities for growth) that keep work interesting and fulfilling. For me, that’s the reward of taking the leap.

I left my audience yesterday with three takeaways:

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Nobody makes “The Flying Wallendas” varsity team without years and years of practice (and good genes). And the little Wallendas don’t start off by leaping off the high platform. Scaffolding, nets, safety gear … it’s all there. And it’s there for librarians, too. In fact, I think that the library profession has to be one of the most interwoven, networked, supporting professions out there. It is, after all, our nature to share and to help. And we do so for one another all of the time.

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Then eventually, you become so good at what you do that people don’t see the nets and the scaffolding. They only see you doing what you know how to do. And you know what else? It doesn’t matter what they call you, either. I feel most pleased when people simply say, “I call Sally because she can help.” It’s not “Sally the librarian” or “Sally the informationist” or “Sally the knowledge manager” or “Sally the evaluator.” Just Sally.

The last takeaway is “Step out in faith.” Just like Indiana Jones in “The Last Crusade.” Step out over the chasm between the library and wherever you want to take your skills and whether you see it or not, a bridge will appear under your feet to take you there safely. (If you don’t know this scene from the movie, seek it out. It’s a good one.)

So that’s what I shared with the group of librarians yesterday. I hope they enjoyed it and got something out of it. And by reading this, I hope you have, too.

Is Big Data Missing the Big Picture?

27 Apr

Forest_for_the_Trees

When I was defending my graduate thesis a number of years ago, I was asked by one of the faculty in attendance to explain why I had done “x” rather than “y” with my data. I stumbled for a bit until I finally said, somewhat out of frustration at not knowing the right answer, “Because that’s not what I said I’d do.” My statistics professor was also in attendance and as I quickly tried to backtrack from my response piped in, “That’s the right answer.”

As I’ve watched and listened to and read and been a part of so many discussions about data – data sharing, data citation, data management – over the past several years, I often find myself thinking back on that defense and my answer. More, I’ve thought of my professor’s comment; that data is collected, managed, and analyzed according to certain rules that a researcher or graduate student or any data collector decides from the outset. That’s best practice, anyway. And such an understanding always makes me wonder if in our exuberance to claim the importance, the need, the mandates, and the “sky’s the limit” views over data sharing, we don’t forget that.

I really enjoyed the panel that the Medical Library Association put together last week for their webinar, “The Diversity of Data Management: Practical Approaches for Health Sciences Librarianship.” The panelists included two data librarians and one research data specialist; Lisa Federer of the National Institutes of Health Library, Kevin Read from New York University’s Health Sciences Library, and Jacqueline Wirz of Oregon Health & Sciences University, respectively. As a disclosure, I know Lisa, Kevin and Jackie each personally and consider them great colleagues, so I guess I could be a little biased in my opinion, but putting that aside, I do feel that they each have a wealth of experience and knowledge in the topic and it showed in their presentations and dialogue.

Listening to the kind of work and the projects that these data-centric professionals shared, it’s easy and exciting to see the many opportunities that exist for libraries, librarians, and others with an interest in data science. At the same time, I admit that I wince when I sense our “We can do this! Librarians can do anything!” enthusiasm bubble up – as occasionally occurs when we gather together and talk about this topic – because I don’t think it’s true. I do believe that individually, librarians can move into an almost limitless career field, given our basic skills in information collection, retrieval, management, preservation, etc. We are well-positioned in an information age. That said, though, I also believe that (1) there IS a difference between information and data and (2) the skills librarians have as a foundation in terms of information science don’t, in and of themselves, translate directly to the age of big data. (I’m not fan of that descriptor, by the way. I tend to think it was created and is perpetuated by the tech industry and the media, both wishing we believe things are simpler than they ever are.) Some librarians, with a desire and propensity towards the opportunities in data science will find their way there. They’ll seek out the extra skills needed and they’ll identify new places and new roles that they can take on. I feel like I’ve done this myself and I know a good plenty handful of others who’ve done the same. But can we sell it as the next big thing that academic and research libraries need to do? Years later, I still find myself a little skeptical.

Moving beyond the individual, though, I wonder if libraries and other entities within information science, as a whole, don’t have a word of caution to share in the midst of our calls for openness of data. It’s certainly the belief of our profession(s) that access to information is vital for the health of a society on every level. However, in many ways it seems that in our discussions of data, we’ve simply expanded our dedication towards the principal of openness to information to include data, as well. Have we really thought through all that we’re saying when we wave that banner? Can we have a more tempered response and/or approach to the big data bandwagon?

Arguably, there are MANY valid reasons for supporting access in this area; peer review, expanded and more efficient science, reproducibility, transparency, etc. Good things, all. But going back to that lesson that I learned in grad school, it’s important to remember that data is collected, managed, and analyzed in certain ways for a reason; things decided by the original researcher. In other words, data has context. Just like information. And like information, I wonder (and have concern for) what happens to data when it’s taken out of its original context. And I wonder if my profession could perhaps advocate this position, too, along with those of openness and sharing, if nothing more than to raise the collective awareness and consciousness of everyone in this new world. To curb the exuberance just a tad.

I recently started getting my local paper delivered to my home. The real thing. The newsprint newspaper. The one that you spread out on the kitchen table and peruse through, page by page. You know what I’ve realized in taking up this long-lost activity again? When you look at a front page with articles of an earthquake in Nepal, nearby horses attacked by a bear, the hiring practices of a local town’s police force, and gay marriage, you’re forced to think of the world in its bigger context. At the very least, you’re made aware of the fact that there’s a bigger picture to see.

When I think of how information is so bifurcated today, I can’t help but ask if there’s a lesson there that can be applied to data before we jump overboard into the “put it all out there” sea. We take research articles out of the context of journals. We take scientific findings out of the context of science. We take individual experiences out of context of the very experience in which they occur. And of course, the most obvious, we take any and every politician’s words out of context in order to support whatever position we either want or don’t want him/her to support. I don’t know about you, but each and every one of these examples appears as a pretty clear reason to at least think about what can and will happen (already happens) to data if and when it suffers the same fate.

Are there reasons why librarians and information specialists are concerned with big data? Absolutely! I just hope that our concern also takes in the big picture.

 

Full Speed Ahead

16 Apr

“Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don’t freeze up.” ~ Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again

I came out of an 8 o’clock meeting on Monday morning with the thought, “Well, at least I still have the whole week ahead for things to improve.” They didn’t. Not really. Not until today. It’s been a difficult week.

One of the steepest learning curves of a new job is less often the tasks at hand, but more learning the people. People make life really great, really difficult, and everything in between. That’s pretty much how it goes, unless we live alone on an island. And no one lives alone on an island. Except Tom Hanks in that movie a few years back. Even then, he had Wilson. My work during the earlier part of the week was not critiqued by inanimate objects and/or sporting equipment. It was reviewed and editorialized and shredded to bits before being put back together into something that only marginally resembled what I started off with by people. I admit it … it hurt. And yes, it also made me a little angry.

I had to do a lot of self-talk to keep going. I said to myself, “If someone you know came to you and expressed to you what you’re feeling right now, you would tell them without hesitation that it takes a lot of courage to take chances, to try new things, to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone.” But if you’re like me, you probably find it much easier to encourage others than to do the same for yourself.

There was, of course, nothing personal in the assessment of the work that I’d done. I had to speak before the Committee on Scientific Research Affairs to explain the findings of a user survey that I carried out for a core service recently. I was representing my department in what I was saying and those who are responsible for it just wanted to make sure that I said the right things, in the right way, to highlight the right points. Still, while it may not have been intentional, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being spoken to like I was a complete newcomer to this business, as if I had never presented anything to any audience ever before.

I walked into my house on Monday night and shouted to my animals, “DON’T THEY KNOW WHO I AM?!?!?!” (It’s good to have animals during moments like this. They never judge you for any angst-ridden, bruised-ego-induced outbursts.)

As I talked about it more with my spouse later that evening and then I paid attention to it more during meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, I realized a couple of things. First, the folks that I work for and with now DON’T know who I am. I get invited to speak at conferences, be on task forces, elected to offices in the world of libraries because my peers in these organizations do know me. They know what I do well. They know how I say things, how I do things, how I believe certain things and express them. And yes, it is a nice ego boost when people like you and respect you for those very things; when they like you and respect you for yourself. But it takes awhile for people to get to know you. It takes work and efforts and showing up and volunteering and writing a blog post week after week.

I have none of this going for myself right now and let me tell you, it’s hard. It’s harder than I thought it would be.

But I also noticed a second thing about my new environs this week and that’s that there is a tendency for people to work collaboratively in a way that is more critical than perhaps I’m used to. On Tuesday morning, I worked for two and a half hours with a couple of docs (an MD and a PhD) on the same presentation. We talked through everything. Every piece – not just what I’d put together, but what they’d put together, too – was up for critique. Everything got moved around and rearranged. Parts got lopped off. I was struggling again to hear people telling me that I needed to say something this way, not that way.

Again, I wanted to shout, “I know how to talk to people, for <expletive> sake!!” But along the way somewhere, I was able to step back from my frustrations and hurt feelings a moment to realize we were all in this together. The process that I was a part of was simply the process that’s the norm for these people. The people who I don’t know and who don’t know me, but yet we work together now.

Yes, I do think that the steepest learning curve involves learning the new people. Coming out of yesterday morning’s presentation, one of my new co-workers said to me, “You’re pretty good at that.” I replied, “Yes, I know. And thanks for saying so.”

We’re getting to know each other. Full speed ahead!

Damn the torpedoes!

Damn the torpedoes!

Do you REALLY want it all?

10 Apr
Feeling the Big Squeeze? Remember that even a squeeze box can make a pretty song.

Feeling the Big Squeeze? Remember that even a squeeze box can make a pretty song.

There’s a billboard across the street from my office building, promoting the hospital that’s affiliated with the medical school where I work. It features a friendly looking young woman with the words above her head, “I want it all.” The implication, of course, is that the medical center can meet all of the health needs of this person, indeed of anyone who uses the hospital and its network of health care providers.

This isn’t a criticism of their advertising campaign, but more just a few thoughts that come to my mind every time that I drive past that sign. Wanting it all is pretty much the American dream, is it not? Maybe it’s the dream of all people, everywhere. We all want whatever it is that we want, whether we necessarily need it or not. You may not subscribe to this belief personally, but you have to admit that it’s an awfully loud societal message.

From the perspective of a provider, be one a provider of health care services or a provider of information services, we want it all, too. We want to say that we can provide anything and everything to anyone and everyone who comes through our doors. Libraries, especially, have this idea deeply ingrained in their DNA. They exist for everyone.

But as we have become such a specialized world, I think we’d do well to face the facts that our ability to meet that mission anymore is dwindling, if not altogether extinct. I’ve been working on an evaluation of one of the research cores for the CCTS and in talking to those involved with it, I can’t help but notice they speak many of the same concerns that I long heard in my former home in the library; a handful of people simply cannot meet the needs and demands of everyone.

This imbalance causes us to rethink much of what we do, how we measure our success, and how we plan for the future. The reality of health care is that you really cannot have it all. A few weeks back, I was feeling really miserable and went to the walk-in clinic of the hospital next door only to learn that it’s really not a walk-in clinic, but rather a place for patients who see a certain group of doctors there. These patients can walk in for a last-minute appointment. If one is available. My doctor is a doctor within the same system, but while he has an office a few floors above the very clinic where I was seeking treatment, his clinical office is in another location, thus I wasn’t able to use the services provided there. Again, not a criticism of the provider network (though I am a big critic of the messed-up system that dictates these type decisions), but I share the story as an example of how claiming all can be provided to everyone ought to be a statement with an asterisk after it. Some restrictions DO apply.

One of the reasons that I chose to leave the library and work for the CCTS is that I felt the expectations in this new role were somewhat more realistic. Here was a defined group of programs and research cores for me to evaluate. It’s a lot, but still seems a manageable number. It allows me the ability to focus more, to feel less scattered, to feel less pulled, to feel less like I’m always falling short of meeting my goals, not because I’m not trying hard or working hard, but because I am only one person and trying to give time to everyone feels like a losing proposition. To me.

Sustainability is a key issue as we continue to work in institutions and businesses and governments that are constantly under the pressures of too little resources to meet all of the required needs. We are limited in people, certainly. Positions are cut or people leave posts and are never replaced. Everyone feels overworked as we try to fill holes and do more.

But we’re also limited by our current service models. Yesterday, I was able to attend the annual eScience Symposium hosted by the NN/LM NER. The afternoon session featured two speakers from different universities who described their particular programs for data services. Regarding their data repositories, one school allows self-deposit while the other offers a mediated service, i.e. researchers send their data to the library and then staff their deposit on their behalf, adding all of the proper metadata, annotation, etc. necessary in order for people to search and find the data sets in the said repository. During the Q&A, I asked the speakers about the differences between their models. I asked them some of the same questions that are asked in the process of evaluating research cores and programs:

How did you decide which path to follow? How did you decide which aspect of your repository to sacrifice; the quality of the content (enhanced by the mediation) or the ability to be a bigger service (because you’re not limited by the time/efforts of staff in the library)?

As one speaker said, “It’s a balancing act.” Indeed. And it’s also a clear example of how believing we can be all for all is misguided. It’s just not possible. We have to set priorities and make choices.

For good and bad, though, these are the realities of academic institutions, health care providers, research centers, and libraries. The one thing that we all really do have is the challenge to face these limitations, all the while trying to come up with the solutions for providing the best of whatever we can offer to as many as possible. Whether it’s what we really want or not, THAT is the “all” that we have.

Turning the Tables

27 Mar

Earlier today, a very nice first year medical student came by my office and apologetically asked me if I could tell her where the offices of our Institutional Review Board people are. I don’t work in the library anymore, you might recall, and now my office sits in a maze of other offices on the 7th (top) floor of the ambulatory care center of our medical complex and medical school. It’s not a place that anyone wanders past. Mine is not an office that someone might simply pop in for a visit. It’s out of the way. And as I said to my former colleagues in the Library and my friends on Facebook, I admittedly miss such interruptions. Not all of the time, mind you, but one of the greatest joys that I knew as a librarian was simply answering someone’s question and / or helping them in some way that made their day better. The student was SO grateful when I got up and walked her around the corner to the IRB folks. She thanked me several times. It was a flashback to those days of yore … oh, 3 months ago or so.

For ten years, I spent the better part of my working days answering people’s questions. Either answering them directly, looking for the answer for them, or helping them learn how to find the answer for themselves. All day long, the overwhelming majority of sentences spoken to me ended in question marks. Librarians answer questions.

Evaluators, on the other hand, ask them. This is what I’m quickly learning. We are the ones who need the answers, thus we’re the ones who ask the questions. How well did “X” intervention work? How much time was saved by implementing “Y” into the process? What does “Z” do for you that no other letter of the alphabet ever did for you before?

But I’ve also learned that there’s a speed bump; the researchers and clinicians and other users of the resources and services that I’m evaluating … well … they typically aren’t librarians. In other words, I don’t think that they like answering questions as much as any librarian does.

“It’s a simple survey,” I claim.

“It won’t take more than 5 minutes of your time.”

“The results will help us help YOU!”

“I’d be ever so grateful,” said Babe the Pig. (If you miss the reference, check out the movie.)

And still, getting people to answer questions is way harder than I ever imagined. I’m actually very good at talking to people, and usually pretty good at getting people to talk to me. It was one of the skills and characteristics that I honed as a librarian / informationist that I figured would be easily transferable to my new role. Not so much. At least not yet.

It could be the method – the dreaded survey. People don’t like them. Heck, I don’t like them. But in some cases it is the most appropriate and most efficient method for getting the data (answers) you need for the evaluation. I read and studied and asked about writing good questions. I worked with seasoned researchers to put my survey together. I piloted it with different groups and made all of the necessary tweaks based on the feedback I received. I picked my target audience carefully. And once I felt confident about the whole thing, I let it loose.

And then … I waited.

And waited.

And sent out a couple of reminders.

And broadened my audience.

And worked some different angles to reach people.

And waited some more.

I’m still waiting; waiting for the responses to grow to some level that will afford me some information needed to present my findings to a couple of different groups. It’s coming along, but golly it’s slow. And such a cumbersome process. Ask me a question and I’ll happily answer for you, straightaway. But waiting for others to answer me … well, the tables have turned, my friends.

A turning table playing a different tune!

A turning table playing a different tune!

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