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Share and Share Alike

17 Jan

PMC ArticleBefore I even get started with this week’s post, let me first draw your attention to this little bit of awesomeness, after all, it’s not every day that you (well, at least I) get to see yourself in print. I feel that I just have to do a little shout out. Plus, my poetic welcome to the attendees of MLA 2013 may well be the most valuable legacy that I ever leave to my profession. 

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Back to the reality of our work at hand, I had a few experiences this week that got me thinking about where and/or how dissemination of knowledge fits into our role as knowledge and information management professionals. The first of these occurred during the weekly meeting of the mammography study team. This week’s meeting was different in that it involved bringing together not only the primary members of the team, but also the players from the technology aspects of it, specifically the programmers from Claricode, and the IT people from Fallon Insurance Company and Reliant Health Care. These individuals have played a key role in the study related to developing the software platform used to collect telephone interview data (the CATI system), pulling necessary data from insurance and health records, and coordinating the disparate data sources into a tracking database that can, ultimately, provide the data for analysis. It’s been no small task from the very beginning of the project. In fact, the very issues raised in the bringing together of these people to accomplish the necessary technological aspects of the study are the ones that led to Aim 2 of the informationist supplement grant that brought me to the study:

Aim 2: Assist investigators in identifying and reporting information technology issues that have arisen in the implementation of the study that may be of use to others.

Initially, we thought that the deliverable for Aim 2 would be a white paper; an outline of the different issues, along with references to the literature, that could be shared with both the clinical research and IT communities, with hopes that the information would prove helpful to those who sought to do this type of collaborative work in the future. In short, the team believes that they have learned some things, including some mistakes that others might want to avoid. However, as we began talking about the topic and I began searching the literature for relevant articles, I found that not much existed that touched on just what we were trying to articulate. This fact led us to discuss whether or not a white paper was the best way to go with this topic/issue. Perhaps a symposium, a meeting that could actually bring the different players – clinicians, researchers, computer programmers, software developers, etc. – together to share insights and brainstorm ideas for how we could all work better together. But this thought got us to wondering more about just who we’d invite. Who are the real stakeholders in this situation? Who would find this interesting? Do clinicians want to talk to developers? Do programmers have the faintest interest in problem-solving with medical researchers? We weren’t sure, so we decided the best way to begin would be to simply bring all of us together – all of the people who have worked on this project for the past 5 years – and see if this group, at least, could identify topics, issues, and/or projects in this area worth moving forward on. 

In short, we found out that the answer is YES!

That’s good news. We could easily list off any number of “lessons learned” and “things to consider next time.” Everyone agreed that we have knowledge that can be useful to others. Excellent!

Now let me tell you about a couple of other experiences of the week before I tie them all together. This one happened yesterday when a group of us from my library were taking part in a webinar for the current eScience Institute run by Duraspace, the Council on Information Library Resources, and the Digital Library Federation. The Institute is a continuation of a project funded by the Association of Research Libraries that began several years ago. It’s objective is to help research libraries assess the data and/or cyber-infrastructure needs of their universities, mostly through conducting environmental scans, surveys, needs assessments, and the like. It involves interviewing key stakeholders in each library’s respective institution, thus providing a better picture and/or road map for planning library services in the areas associated with data management. Our cohort consists of about 25 other libraries. Combined with the previous years, approximately 120 libraries have taken part in this initiative.

As we listened in, someone in our group asked, “Do we share our findings with the other libraries?” Our leader typed the question into the chat box and the answer we received was along the lines of “You can, if you wish.” Now this is, to me, well… well, it’s strange. I’ll just say it. Strange. It’s strange because of every profession on the planet, which one is best associated with sharing? I’m thinking that it’s us. Libraries. Librarians. Librarianship. We are founded on the principle of sharing. At least in part. One of the biggest forces driving the movement of libraries into data management is the concept (for some, mandates) of data sharing. We, of all people, know the benefits of sharing. That’s why we’re advocates here. So to me, it’s kind of strange to find a whole bunch of libraries involved in a project where all of the information, data, and most importantly, knowledge discovered in the process of going through these exercises isn’t being readily shared. Why? How can this be? Maybe I just misunderstood.

Also yesterday, my library’s journal club met and discussed the article, “The New Medical Library Association Research Agenda: Final Results from a Three-Phase Delphi Study,” (Eldredge, Ascher, Holmes, and Harris). The paper reports on the process undertaken by the researchers to identify the leading research questions in the field of medical librarianship as they were identified by members of MLA’s Research Section, as well as leadership within different levels of the organization. As we looked over and discussed the list of questions in the article, many people noted that they remain the same questions that we’ve been asking for years, e.g. questions of the value of librarians, the value of libraries, the information needs of our patron groups, etc. The comment was also made, both in our group’s discussion and in the paper, that some of these questions may well have been answered already. To this thought I commented, “Well evidently not well enough, if those with vested interests and notable involvement in our profession still have them.” Or maybe less cynically, my comment could have been, “Perhaps so, but if this is the case, we haven’t done a very good job of sharing that knowledge, because we still have the questions.”

All of this leads me back to a bigger question that’s become quite clear to me of late as I continue to observe or be a part of these type experiences, i.e. How do we share what we know with others?

To me, this is a HUGE need in the world of knowledge and information management where librarians can help. Quite honestly, I’m not clear on all of the ways that we can help, but I absolutely believe that there is a place for us here. We are experts in gathering and organizing information. We have the skills that allow us to make that information accessible. We know how to evaluate materials, weed out junk, and build strong collections (notice how I never use a certain trendy word in describing these activities). These are all foundations to sharing information and, ultimately, knowledge.

However, it’s the next step where we need to bring our own skills up to the task. It’s the next step that’s woefully missing in the whole “knowledge sharing” world. To me, that step is dissemination. Better put, effective dissemination. That is where the sharing of knowledge happens and I’m not sure that anyone is doing the best job at it today.

Researchers within their own institutions don’t know what their colleagues are doing; what their colleagues are discovering. How can we help them with this? They want to know. They tell us this. But so far nobody has been able to create the resources or the tools or the environment to make this happen, at least not in a seamless, integrated way. Libraries have tried, but as one of our Library Fellows said to me, “We have a ‘Field of Dreams’ mentality. We think that if we just build the resource, everyone will use it.” I agree. We are quite capable of building resource guides and special collections, but unless people use them, the information they contain just sits there. The knowledge that they are capable of spreading is trapped. A “Help Manual” is of no help when no one reads it.

I said to that same Fellow, “I have really no idea how to solve the problem yet, but that’s always the first step. Recognizing it.” But I do really believe that if we can become adept at whatever all of the skills are that we need to build and implement resources that fit into the workflows and the paths and the processes of our patrons, we will have discovered an entire new area of work for our profession. Part behaviorist, part ethnographer, part programmer, part librarian… likely a combination of these and more. It’s no simple problem to solve, but it’s an awfully big key to sharing and as we have long been the leaders in that act, I see no reason why we should stop now. 

*Interested in thinking about this more? Here’s a podcast and a paper that I’ve assigned as the material for the February journal club in my library. 

 

Don’t Reinvent the Milk Carton

25 Nov
US Patent 1,157,462

US Patent 1,157,462

One morning last week, as I poured the last bit of milk out of the carton and onto my raisin bran, I looked at the plastic spout poking out of the “roof” like a chimney and wondered to myself, “Who ever decided that this was an improvement on the original milk carton design?” I thought about how John R. Van Wormer’s ingenious idea to make a self-contained container – a single object that both held milk AND unfolded to give you a spout – somehow became “not good enough.” Why? Whoever thought that a carton needed a second spout, complete with three other small pieces of plastic that now, multiplied by a gazillion, take up space in landfills? What the heck was ever wrong with unfolding the spout?

I’ve thought about this for days. Literally. I’ve mentioned it to a couple of friends and/or colleagues. I’ve asked them if they know why this “improvement” came along? They don’t. And neither do I. But I’ve thought so much about what it represents that I’ve decided my new mantra is “Don’t reinvent the milk carton!” I even printed off a picture of the image shown here and gave it to my supervisor so that she could hang it on her office door. I’m bringing the message to the people.

But I bring this up on my “Library Hats” blog not so much because I feel like the research team that I’ve worked with the past year is engaging in such an act, but more because as my time as an informationist on the team winds down, I’ve begun to look back on the project and take note of some of the bigger (and maybe a few smaller) lessons that I’ve learned along the way. And one of these lessons does remind me of the milk carton mantra.

When we first approached the research team to discuss with them different ideas, options, projects, etc. that we thought an informationist could bring to their work, it initiated a terrific time of “big picture” thinking. Once we explained what an informationist is and what skills and/or services I could bring along with me to the team, we came up with all sorts of ideas for things to do. “It would be great if we could …” and “We’ve wanted to do …” were phrases that came up often. This was just what we wanted and we proceeded to write up several aims and a lengthy list of tasks and projects to undertake in order to accomplish them. These were all new things thought to improve the overall research project, not necessarily things to create extra work for the team. Work for the informationist, yes, but not more work for an overworked team.

That was our design, anyway.

As I prepared a report for tomorrow morning’s team meeting, updating everyone on the status of where I am related to the aims of the grant, I began to think about my milk carton metaphor and wondered if maybe we didn’t wreck a good design with the addition of me. Like the addition of that plastic spout to the perfectly perfect milk carton, throwing me on the top actually has created more work for everyone on the team. The projects that we thought about, particularly related to performing thorough reviews of the literature and examining information technology issues in research… these ideas were things that the team may well have wanted to work on, address, and delve into with an informationist on board, however I’m not sure we really considered how much of their time would be required to accomplish them. Like the milk carton, they were a single, self-contained unit that worked pretty well. Add me, the plastic spout, and now you’ve added the spout, the cap, and the little pull-tab plastic piece that you have to remove before you open the carton the first time. One thing becomes four. Better design? It’s debatable. 

I do think that I’ve provided some valuable tools for the team (and future teams) to use, i.e. the data dictionary, data request forms, and a growing catalog of relevant articles for their field of work. But writing a review article is another project. Writing a systematic review is, in its purest form, an entire research project in and to itself. Similarly, planning a conference or investigating big-picture issues like how research happens in teams… maybe these are terrific aims, just not necessarily aims for supplemental work. I think that this is something we need to consider in the future when drafting our proposals for these type of services. 

In a time when people, dollars, and all resources are stretched to the limit, we don’t need to be making extra work – or plastic waste – for ourselves.

 

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