Archive | July, 2013

Whad’ya Know? (Not Much)

26 Jul

mind the gapYou may or may not be a fan of Michael Feldman’s radio show, “Whad’ya Know?” Me, I make more time for “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” but despite the fact that I rarely listen to “Whad’ya Know?,” I can still hear the audience’s retort when the show begins with the announcer asking the eponymous question… NOT MUCH!

I thought of this line as I read a couple of pieces on data management this week, both written by colleagues; Dorothea Salo’s Library Journal article, Data Curation’s Dirty Little Secret, and Jen Ferguson’s response to it, Dirty Little Secrets, that was posted on the e-Science Community Blog. Salo’s original piece argues that the need for discipline knowledge is secondary, if anything, when it comes to the practice of managing research data. Ferguson, a molecular biologist turned librarian, agrees. I believe both authors make some excellent and valid points and don’t want to spend my post arguing against them. I think that their pieces are worth reading, considering, and adding to the arsenal of experience and opinion that continues to grow in regards to the discussion.

I do, however, want to have a think on the emphasis placed on both data management skills and subject knowledge that informationists need to have; at least so far as “informationist” is defined by the National Library of Medicine’s Administrative Supplement Grants for these services and/or this role. (As an aside, I was in a meeting at my church last night with a wonderful British woman who kept saying, “Let’s have a think on this.” I’ve decided that it’s my new favorite phrase.) In the latest announcement for the informationist grants, the funding purpose is again defined as:

These administrative supplements provide funds to supported research and center grants in order to enhance the storage, organization, management and use of electronic research data through the involvement of informationists, also known as in-context information specialists.

The purposes of this administrative supplement program are (1) to enhance collaborative, multi-disciplinary basic and clinical research by integrating an information specialist into the research team in order to improve the capture, storage, organization, management, integration, presentation and dissemination of biomedical research data; and (2) to assess and document the value and impact of the informationist’s participation.

It seems fairly clear to me that this role of managing data is what some feel is the most important new role for librarians to undertake. If librarians were the audience for “Whad’ya Know?”, I can hear our cry to the announcer being, “DATA!” Personally, I’m not exactly sure how true this rings, but it’s for sure the shout that we want to be making. The informationist grants aren’t aimed to support other, more traditional, librarian services, but instead, data services.

And interestingly, the National Library of Medicine does believe that disciplinary knowledge is a characteristic of an informationist (see background information here).

Here’s my take on all of this…

Does my background in exercise physiology help me in my work as an embedded librarian? You betcha! Why? Because most of the studies and teams that I’m supporting involve research around the areas of prevention, intervention, and changing health behaviors. It’s not my discipline background that necessarily helps me undertake the data management aspects of this role (that’s library and information science expertise), but it is extremely valuable in my being able to become fully integrated into the research team. Maybe this is due to nothing much more than what Jen describes in her post as “a little instant ‘cred'” upon entering the team. Credibility gets you a seat at the table and I also think that it gives you confidence that you belong there. It helps to see yourself less as supporting cast and more as a member of an ensemble.

I’m not arguing against what Dorothea and Jen state, for I don’t necessarily disagree. I do believe that you can provide a level of data management and support without needing to know much of anything related to the data itself. But still I’m left wondering, based upon the accepted definition of an informationist (by NLM and the literature), why the call for the discipline knowledge for this role OR why the emphasis upon data services above everything else we can provide? Why do we believe that data management is the most valuable thing that we can bring to a research team? Why do we see it as the role that we can fill above other roles? Is this really the way we’ll find success?

The jury is still out, of course. Part of my time as an informationist this go ’round involves evaluating the value of the role. Maybe in time we’ll have a better grasp on the skills that are most valuable to a team. I have a feeling that there will never be a truly clear answer, though. I think so much of the success of our individual roles, as well as the overall team, is dependent upon a lot of factors and skills that are not necessarily learned in school – at least not now. Fortunately, a movement is afoot to shed light on the importance of these soft skills, people skills, personal dynamics, and the like that are increasingly valued in a cross-disciplinary research world.

Time and experience will tell where we best fit and, hopefully, what we do best once we get there.

Summer Picks

18 Jul

I’ve but a short post to share this week. Honestly, it’s just too hot to even think clearly enough to write, BUT not to read. With this in mind, I thought I’d share a few of the informationist-related books that I’m working through this summer. If you have others to contribute or thoughts to share about any of these, I hope you’ll do so in the comments section.

Beginning Database Design, Clare Churcher

Beginning Database Design, Clare Churcher

It’s true that most librarians learn about database design in grad school and it’s surely a skill that we should have expertise in throughout our careers, but a good refresher text is never anything to snuff at. I picked up this one at the MIT bookstore when I was taking the Software Carpentry Bootcamp several weeks back. It’s a keeper for the bookshelf on my desk.

Visualize This, Nathan Yau

Visualize This, Nathan Yau

Data Points: Visualization that Matters, Nathan Yau

Data Points: Visualization that Matters, Nathan Yau

These two books by Nathan Yau, together, are providing me with both a skill set to retrieve data from the Web and a really good understanding of how to present data and/or information so that it makes the most sense to an audience. Yau writes clearly and with a tone that keeps you interested in a topic that, lets face it, could easily slip into the dry and “put you to sleep” mode. As one with an appreciation for design, I also think that the books are treasures to look at. They’re a great starter set for what is my summer reading’s real focus, data visualization.

Visualizing Data: Exploring and Explaining Data with the Processing Environment, Ben Fry

Visualizing Data: Exploring and Explaining Data with the Processing Environment, Ben Fry

More technical and dense than Yau’s books, I had a half-price coupon for an O’Reilly Media ebook and so I picked this one. It’s definitely good for reference and troubleshooting, though I know it’s not one that I’ll read cover-to-cover.

The Functional Art: An introduction to information graphics and visualization (Voices That Matter), Alberto Cairo

The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization, Alberto Cairo

Cairo’s is another really beautiful book to both look at and read. Design is first and foremost. I’m finding Yau’s books more practical for my learning, but I love picking this one up and flipping through its pages every now and then, just because it’s so nice to peruse. But not to sell it short, it’s filled with a lot of good advice for communicating information in a clear and interesting manner. It fits well with the others on my shelf.

Beautiful Visualization: Looking at Data through the Eyes of Experts (Theory in Practice), edited by Julie Steele and Noah Iliinsky

Beautiful Visualization: Looking at Data through the Eyes of Experts (Theory in Practice), edited by Julie Steele and Noah Iliinsky

As the title suggests, this is a phenomenal collection of works by many of the leading practitioners of data visualization working today. This is the perfect working informationist beach book, offering a bunch of short, quick reads, separate to themselves, that together give you a really high bar to shoot for if you want to go into this field.

A Simple Introduction to Data Science,  Lars Nielsen & Noreen Burlingame

A Simple Introduction to Data Science, Lars Nielsen & Noreen Burlingame

Short and sweet (just 75 pages long), this is a staple on my Kindle. It explains data science in lay terms, yet from the scientist’s (not the librarian’s) point of view. It’s a nice reference to keep handy.

Pretty Good for a Girl

Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass (Music in American Life), Murphy Hicks Henry

And finally, lest you think I’ve completely rearranged all of my life’s priorities, I’m really, (really), enjoying this compilation of women (most forgotten and/or overlooked) from the 1920s to present who have held their own in the male-dominated world of bluegrass music. It’s stellar!

That’s a full beach bag of books for me (and you, if you want to seek some or all of them out) and summer is really only so long. In fact, how many days do I have ’til vacation?!?!

Happy reading and stay cool!

Match Game

9 Jul
One of my all-time favorite shows of the 70s, The Match Game!

One of my all-time favorite shows of the 70s, The Match Game!

I found out yesterday that a friend and colleague has accepted a new job and heading off to a different city, different library, different adventures. For a long time, I looked at job announcements. Sometimes I still do, particularly when they pass across social media sites (Did you know that Queen Elizabeth is looking for a librarian to oversee her personal library?) or on professional listservs (It’s hard to ignore a job opening in France – the cafes, the coffee, the atmosphere. Tres bien.) But I don’t actively seek out the sites that post jobs and I don’t think about the possibility of doing something else. I do have a mobile coffee cart that I’m working on – a 3-wheeled bike that I’m outfitting to sell coffee at festivals and farmers markets – and on occasion I play in a band, but those things are fun. I have no dreams of quitting my day job to do either of them full-time. 

And that, folks, is a first. 

I have worked at a whole slew of different jobs ever since I was 15 years old, earlier if you count mowing lawns and babysitting. I earned a bunch of degrees at a bunch of schools, always trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my vocational life and thinking that if I only had the education, I’d be all set. For the past 8 1/2 years, I’ve been a librarian. Like putting together your fantasy team, it looked good on paper, me and the library. We were a good match. I love libraries (their physical forms) and research and looking stuff up. I love the feeling of finding an article or a citation or some quirky fact or figure that eludes most others. I love looking, looking, looking and going down all of the many paths of the many things that you come across while you search. I love having a whole brain-full of trivial facts; the result of browsing through so many different subjects. I love that I do well on “Jeopardy!” (at least in the comforts of my living room).

Still, even after a number of years being a librarian, I could find myself too regularly wondering what it might be like to work in another library, in another place, in a different discipline. I eventually came to accept the fact that this was just my nature. I’d always be a little unsettled in work.

I also always believed that promotion was the way of success in a library. Like lots of kinds of work, I just assumed that I’d start off at one level and then work my way up, accepting more responsibility along the way. Libraries are fairly flat organizations, at least the ones I’m most familiar with, and so you basically move from being a librarian to being some kind of administrator. If you’re really good, you become a library director.

A few years into my career, I figured that’s the path I ought to pursue. Things worked out in my library that I got a supervisory role, overseeing our Research and Scholarly Communication services. I was the head of a group, even if the group consisted only of two or three people. It was a step in the upward direction. 

But despite that “right path,” I found out that it wasn’t me. I’m not much of an administrator. Some of this I learned pretty easily. Some was more than a little difficult and took a good bit of a toll over time. Eventually, I began to think that it was time for me to look for something else. I just figured that I’d reached that time – like lots of other times before – where it was time to try something new. Time, time, time. Time’s up.

I began to look at job ads. I began to look around my own campus at other opportunities, places and positions where I could maybe use the knowledge that I had, but do something different. I thought about applying to be a project manager or project coordinator. I thought about how I could persuade a research department of the benefits of having a project manager who also knew how to be a librarian. Think of how they’d never again have the headaches associated with NIH Public Access compliance. They’d never have to worry about calling someone from the library to help them with difficult searches or bibliographic management. I could manage projects AND do that. That’s what I was thinking. That, along with job opportunities in really fun cities.

But then fate struck (better fate than lightning). The supplemental grant awards for informationist services were announced. My library director thought we needed to apply for one. As the story goes, we did, we got an award, and I got a new job. Bing-Bang-Boom. Kind of.

I’m not sure that my library director has always known what to do with me. I can admit that I was probably something of a frustration from time to time. What do you do with a librarian that doesn’t quite fit the mold of the work that needs to be done? What do you do with an employee who you know is always kind of feeling a little out of place? What do you do when skills and interests don’t match with the usual progressions and/or promotions? These are the kind of questions that directors and administrators have to struggle with, which might be why I’m not very good at it. I don’t have that much patience.

Fortunately, I do have a director who saw an opportunity and who said, “I think that you’d be really good at this.” Doing this job meant that I had to give up the supervisory role. It meant that I had to accept that my best skills don’t lie in the areas that will lead me up the promotional ladder. But it really is okay, because while I might not be going up any traditional ladder of success, I’m finding the kind of success that I really can’t imagine I could find in any regular route. I feel like I get many of the benefits of working as a solo librarian, without having to leave the nest altogether. I can be entrepreneurial without having to risk losing my health insurance and retirement. I can gain a whole lot of new colleagues without having to leave behind old ones.

In many ways, I’m working the same way that researchers and project managers and analysts and others on the research teams work. It’s the best of both worlds. Everyone is a team player, but with somewhat subtle differences from being on organized teams within a larger structure (like the library). Everyone is also a bit of a renegade. It reminds me of Russell Crowe’s character in that movie where he plays the cop who takes down Denzel Washington, the drug dealer. He’s a really good cop, but he doesn’t work so well with others, that is until he finds the right “others.” When that happens, he ends up leading a pretty formidable team. 

Now I’m no Russell Crowe (I don’t look nearly as good in a skirt, gladiator or no), but I do think that I work for a few people who are like him. Or at least like that character. The PIs I’ve come to know and work for over the past few months are people who need to do their own thing. They can work within a set of guidelines, but they’re all freelancers, a bunch of really smart and inquisitive people who want to figure out the answers to a lot of questions that interest them. And to do that, they build teams of people around them who, I think, might be kind of like them. They look for people who complement their skills, while also matching their personalities.

Library directors do this too, though they might not always have quite the latitude and flexibility of the PIs. Over time, a library can take on the personality of its director. It can certainly follow the directions and interests of him/her. Two of the library directors that I respect most are my own, Elaine Martin, and Jean Shipman, the director of the Eccles Health Sciences Library at the University of Utah. They couldn’t be much more different in terms of their outward personalities and they each have different passions in terms of the services and directions that they want their libraries to provide and go. But they are both extremely successful and effective in their roles. 

In the same way, I see all sorts of personalities and visions and work styles and leadership styles and more in the different researchers that I’ve come to know. Principal investigators who have successful labs and studies build good teams around them; teams made up of people who match what they need. (As an aside, both Elaine and Jean are PIs on major grants from the National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.) It really is a lot about finding and/or making the right matches.

And all of this is a really rambling way of saying that if and when we’re lucky enough, persistent enough, stubborn enough, and/or any combination of these, we can find the right position where who we are and the skills that we possess match up with someone else’s needs and skills and personality. I also think that this particular phenomenon (for lack of a better word) is really difficult to define and quantify, and as such makes it hard when it comes to telling anyone how he/she/they might find success in this informationist role. People ask, students ask, colleagues ask, other library directors ask, the grant funders ask… but as of yet, I’m not quite sure what the answer is. I do know, however, that I’m for once not even thinking about what another job could be like. This one is pretty great every day. 

 

Someday is TODAY!

1 Jul
A Tiger by the Tail! (Photo: Kimberly Brown-Azzarello, http://www.flickr.com/photos/kb-a/)

Grab a Tiger by the Tail! (Photo: Kimberly Brown-Azzarello, http://www.flickr.com/photos/kb-a/)

Several years ago, I was invited to be a part of a journal club that discussed topics related to exercise physiology. It was here at the Med School where we have no such formal program and/or research taking place, but there was still a group of researchers and doctoral students with an interest in what happens to the body when it exercises. Not that surprising, they were mostly cyclists. I’ve often found cyclists to be among the most curious group when it comes to ex phys. They’re completely absorbed in the whole lactate threshold thing.

The first day that I attended the group, I was greeted with, “Oh good, Sally is here! Sally is the expert. She’s the one with the degree.” At the time, this said a lot to me in terms of how researchers view one another. You know what you’ve studied and you’re an expert in the discipline that you know best.

I’ve gotten a lot of traction out of this story since that day. I’ve often used it when asking my colleagues how often, if ever, they’ve been invited to a research meeting and called out as the information expert. Sadly, it doesn’t happen nearly enough. I’ve often wondered if that day would ever arrive when I was seen as the expert from the Library.

I wondered it until today. TODAY I was invited to a meeting by a group of folks considering a grant application and several times during the meeting, people said that I was there because I was the expert in the areas that they knew nothing about, e.g. information management, information architecture, website design, and all sorts of other things related to technology. They used the word over and over, “Sally is the expert.” The others were experts in nutrition and public health and mindfulness. I was the expert in information collection, presentation, dissemination, and the technology necessary for this to happen.

Walking back across campus afterward, I remembered the journal club story and couldn’t help but think how far I’ve been able to reach into the research community, in a relatively short period of time, simply by getting out and meeting people, working with them, building a small portfolio of projects and deliverables, and building a small list of names that I can drop for effect. To me, more than anything, this is the goal of the informationist program. The specific skills and their associated value that we can bring to research teams is recognized from the very beginning. In fact, this particular team was stuck with writing part of their grant ~ even deciding whether or not to pursue it ~ without consulting an informationist. Down the line, if necessary, we can talk about the nuts and bolts of how I could be included in the team, but really I already feel a part of it. They needed my expertise now and knew to include me.

Someday has arrived and I’m convinced that our professional future is wide open for these type of experiences to happen more and more often. Let’s grab them!

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