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12 Sep

For years, I lived on Lower Flying Point in Freeport, Maine, one of those fingers of land that stretches out into Casco Bay. You can get to Lower Flying Point one of two ways; Flying Point Road off of Bow Street, which is off of Main Street in Freeport (turn right at L.L. Bean) or Flying Point Road by way of Pleasant Hill Road by way of Highland Road by way of Maine Street in Brunswick, ME. You can probably tell, just by the description, that the former is the fastest, straightest route.

One summer, Mill Stream, which ultimately flows into and becomes the Harraseeket River, flooded. REALLY flooded. Over the banks and over the surrounding fields and over Bow Street/Flying Point Road. In its flooding, it took with it the very large culvert that ran underneath the road and, with the culvert also went the road itself. For weeks after, the only way to get to and from home was the very round-about and out-of-the way route through Brunswick. People were good sports about it, even though it was a major inconvenience and added as much as a half-hour to one’s commute, and when the road was finally re-opened, we hung balloons and had a party. Access restored.

In her book, Access to Medical Knowledge: Libraries, Digitization, and the Public Good, Frances Groen identifies three values that lie at the foundation of professional librarianship:

  • Providing access to information
  • Preserving the accumulated knowledge of the past
  • Helping the public understand how to use information

(Read a review of the book by Janice Kaplan in the July 2007 issue of JMLA.)

I’ve required the students in my Health Sciences Librarianship course at the University of Rhode Island to take part in one of the Thursday night #medlibs Twitter chats. Last night was an option and several were there, asking great questions and sharing in the discussion. The topic centered on the role of librarians in the clinical setting and was led by Julia Esparza, a Clinical Medical Librarian from LSU Health in Shreveport, LA. Julie asked some really pertinent questions around what it takes to have confidence in this role, what people most enjoy about it, and what some of the unique challenges to it are. My students expressed real surprise at how much clinical medical librarians can be involved in the hospital setting, particularly when it came to thinking about them being part of rounds, i.e. being at the patient’s bedside with the rest of the clinical team. To paraphrase… “What do patients think about that?” “How would I feel about it, if I was a patient?” “How does that make a patient feel, that a doctor has to look to a librarian for help finding information?”

Great questions, every last one of them! 

The medical profession is layered (and layered and layered) with levels of myth and entitlement and very entrenched beliefs about the respective roles of doctors and patients. Given our incredibly complex healthcare environment and the limitations of physicians in terms of how much time they have to spend with patients, there’s been a push for patients to become educated about their health, diseases, care, etc. Patients need advocates, be they a family member, friend, or stranger. It’s simply unwise to step into a situation involving yours or a loved one’s health, knowing little to nothing of what’s going on. But it happens all the time. Medical librarians, particularly those focused on consumer health resources, are tasked with providing access to the information that the public needs to be better prepared here. From the admonishment, “Don’t Google for Health Information!” to showcasing sites likes MedlinePlus to attending health fairs… medical librarians (and public librarians) are busy here, staying true to the values “Providing access to information” and “Helping the public understand how to use information.”

So how does this fit with librarians being a part of teams in the clinical setting? I argue that it’s merely an extension of the same. They are there to make sure that the doctors AND the patients have access to the information that they need, and they are there to make sure that everyone knows how to use it. But what does that mean? Providing access is one thing, but what does it mean to help someone understand how to use information? Doctors are there to diagnose, we all agree with this, but for the patient who doesn’t understand the information presented to them, does the librarian, perhaps, have a role in helping them understand it? After all, doesn’t understanding how to use information depend upon understanding what the information means in the first place?

Not being a clinical librarian, I really only have opinions here – not much actual experience or evidence to fall back upon. However, if I translate this setting to my own, i.e. the research team, and think of my role as a librarian there, are there any parallels? I think so.

There’s a debate among those who take part in systematic reviews and in-depth searches regarding how much a librarian should do. Do we simply develop and execute the search strategy, and then pass off the results to the rest of the team for review? Are we breaking some rule if we review the articles, too? Is it taboo for us to write synopses of papers, evaluations of them, or give our own thoughts upon whether or not they are worthy of inclusion in the study? Can we take the lead in writing more than the methodology of a systematic review? Can we make suggestions, share informed opinions, and discuss the topics at hand that extend beyond the subject of librarianship? 

For me, the answer to these questions lies at the heart of what it means to truly be embedded in the setting, be it research or clinical. It’s about being an equal part of the team and while each member has his/her level and/or area of expertise, to be more than an accessory, you need to step up and be equal – equally responsible, equally accountable, and equally invested. If I can explain some information to someone, to me that is part of helping someone understand how to use it. It’s a core value. To stop short of this because I believe that it’s not my role or not my responsibility, that’s falling short of what I believe is my professional place. 

I was in the hospital last month and while there, I overheard my medical team (just docs, no librarian) in the hallway talking about my EKG. The resident and attending doc were explaining to the medical student about the length of my QT segment and what my R wave progression might be telling them. I wanted to yell out into the hallway and tell them that I’d had a couple of semesters of cardiac electrophysiology as an undergrad and grad student, and ask if they might wish to come in the room and talk to me about it. But I didn’t. I listened to what they said about me in the hallway and then listened to what they said to me when they came to my bedside. And they were, as you can imagine, quite different.

After last night’s chat and then thinking about the questions and observations of my students, I wondered how this experience might have gone differently if a medical librarian was there. And then I realized that a medical librarian WAS there. Granted, I was the patient and really in no mood to make it a teachable moment, but that’s what it was. I could have talked to the doctors and let them know that I knew how to use the information they weren’t sharing with me. I could have said that as a medical librarian, it’s my job to make sure people know how to use the information they have. It’s not just my job to provide access to it. If this means explaining something – or making sure the clinician explains something – in a way that the patient understands it, then that’s what I do. I like to think that our role is a heckuva lot more than simply being a culvert.



Come Together

18 Jul
Photo by Antonio. Used with permission.

Photo by Antonio. Used with permission.

What an exciting week it’s been! You know those days or moments when you see a lot of groundwork (hard work) start to pay off; like when you see the first tomato appear on the vine or the first sprig of a pepper plant pop up through the dirt? Well, we had one of those this week. For the past several years, we’ve been talking about and planning and laying the foundation to provide library services around the needs that our patrons have when it comes to working with data. Years, I tell you.

When my colleague, Rebecca, arrived last August to take the reins in this effort, I’d been out pounding the pavement for a good while, building relationships and doing individual data-related projects, and perhaps most importantly, getting a sense of who did what and when and where and how. Rebecca got to work strategizing, writing plans, working with our library’s administration and other higher-ups in the university, while Lisa and I provided experience and the connections needed to pull it all together. We developed a Library Data Services Advisory Group, bringing a few vested parties to the table. We did an extensive environmental scan to find out what the different stakeholders on campus thought the Library’s role might be in this area. We talked to lots of people. We surveyed students. We gained a lot of insight.

Meanwhile, I continued to do my work with the mammography study team, part of which involved helping put together a mini-symposium around data issues in clinical research. We brought together clinicians, members of our Quantitative Health Sciences (QHS) Department, and members of University’s Information Technology Department. We also surveyed colleagues to gauge their interest and needs in this area. 

Sitting in these different groups, working on these different teams, I started to see pretty clearly that multiple things were happening on campus; that there was at last some real thought and energy being put towards addressing some of the needs we have around data. I also started to see that a lot of right hands weren’t aware of what their left hands were doing. And the most exciting part of that (when I got past being frustrated) was this… I knew what both hands were doing! 

A few weeks back, I wrote about that frustrating part, as well as how I see how exciting it can be when we (librarians and thus, the library) are positioned in a way to make things happen. And this past Monday, was one of those exciting moments. We ALL came together; representatives of each of these groups that I’ve been witnessing talk about what to do to address the data needs at UMMS. The librarians, the clinical researchers, the computing services folks, the QHS people… we were all at the same table where we could share with one another what we do, what we know, and how we can help. And we came away with some very real, tangible projects that we can tackle together. It really was one of those times when I felt a sense of accomplishment in this task that’s been nebulous, to say the least.

And… I was also hired by the University of Rhode Island’s Library & Information Studies program to teach the course on Health Sciences Librarianship this fall. (I’m really excited about it!!) Totally unrelated to the previous tale, but the two events made for a pretty great week. I hope you’ve had the same!

The Doctor is Out

10 Jul

Psychiatric BoothAdmit it. We all know a lot better, a lot of the time. People know that sitting around all day isn’t the best thing for one’s health, but here we sit. We know that the label says there are 6 servings of macaroni and cheese in the box, but it really divides better by 2 or 3. We know that being distracted while driving isn’t the safest thing, but we text and we do our makeup and we fiddle with the radio and we play our ukuleles while we drive, anyway. And when it comes to information and data, of course we know that it’s best to back-up our files in multiple places and formats, to name our files a certain way so that we can find things easily, and to write down instructions and practices so that we, or others, can repeat what we did the first time. Of course we know these things because let’s be honest, it’s common sense. But… we don’t.

Personally, I get incredibly frustrated at librarians who think we’re adding something important to the world of data management, just by teaching people these notions that really are common sense. I think that there’s something more that we need to do and it involves understanding a thing or two about the way people learn and the way they behave. In other words, lacking a behavioral psychologist on your research team, librarians would do well to study some things from their camp and put them to use in our efforts at teaching, providing information, helping with communication issues, and streamlining the information and/or data processes in a team environment.

I’m preparing to teach a course in the fall and thus I’ve been reading some things about instructional design. In her book, Design for How People Learn, Julie Dirksen explains that when you’re trying to teach someone anything, it’s good practice to start by identifying the gaps that exist “between a learner’s current situation and where they need to be in order to be successful.” (p. 2) Dirksen describes several of these gaps:

  • Knowledge and Information Gaps
  • Skills Gaps
  • Motivation Gaps
  • Environment Gaps

More, I believe she hits the nail on the head when she writes, “In most learning situations, it’s assumed that the gap is information – if the learner just had the information, then they could perform.” I know that I fall into this trap often (and I bet that I’m not alone). I believe if I teach a student how to conduct a solid search in PubMed, that’s how they’ll search. I show them a trick or two and they say, “Wow!” I watch them take notes. I help them set up their “My NCBI”  account. We save a search. They’ve got it! I feel like Daniel Day Lewis in the movie, There Will Be Blood, “I have a milkshake and you have a milkshake.” I have knowledge and now you have the knowledge. Success!

Now if you do any work that involves teaching students or clinicians or researchers or anyone, you know not to pat yourself on the back too much here. I teach people, my colleagues teach people, all of our many colleagues before us (teachers, librarians at undergraduate institutions, librarians at other places where our folks previously worked) teach people. We all teach the same people, yet we keep seeing them doing things in their work involving information that make us throw up our hands. How many times do we have to tell them this?! 

Well, maybe it’s not in the telling that we’re failing. This is where I think understanding and appreciating the other gaps that may exist in the situations, addressing them instead of simply passing along information, could lead us to much more success. And this is where we could use that psychologist.

Earlier this week, I tweeted that I was taking suggestions for what to rename the systematic review that I’ve been working on with my team, for it is anything but systematic. A’lynn Ettien, a local colleague, tweeted back the great new name, “Freeform Review.” I loved that. Another colleague, Stephanie Schulte, at the Ohio State University, offered up a really helpful link to a paper on the typology of reviews. But it was what my colleague, Eric Schnell, also at OSU, tweeted that led me to this blog post:


BINGO! Every person on my team knows what the “rules” are, but they keep changing them as we go along. I spend time developing tools to help this process go more smoothly, but still get a bunch of notes emailed to me instead of a completed form. I give weeks to developing a detailed table of all of the elements we’ve agreed to look at. Except this one. Oh, and this. Oh, and should we also talk about this? I put my head down on the table.

But Eric is exactly right. This is how most people deal with information. This is how we work. And it’s not a matter at all of people not knowing something, but rather it’s a problem of people not doing something. Or better put, not doing something differently. Sometimes people do lack knowledge. Many times, people lack skills – something that a lot of practice can fix. But an awful lot of time, what we really need to address are the gaps that have nothing to do with knowing what or how to do something.

Why won’t my people use the forms I’ve created and the tables that I’ve prepared? They said that they liked them. They said they were what they wanted. So… what’s the problem? I think it’s something that each of us who works in this field of information wrangling needs to become proficient at, i.e. learning to see and address all of the gaps that exist. At least the ones we can.

And I, for one, am still learning. 


Let’s Decide!

6 Jun

The title of this post can be found written in large, bold letters in the notes I took during a meeting on Tuesday. “LET’S DECIDE!” It followed the side comment (my notes from any meeting are filled with side comments and/or digressions), “Basically, we can facilitate this work and see that as our role or keep doing our own thing.” I realize that it’s not truly an “either/or” situation, but…

Maybe I should offer a little background, first.

Initially, Aim 2 in the proposal for my work as an informationist on the mammography study was this:

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.

After spending a great deal of time searching the literature in fields from information technology to medical informatics to team science (or simply teamwork), I realized that not much existed that fit the issues that they’d encountered. Further, I wasn’t convinced that writing an article and/or white paper on the topic was the place to start in terms of reporting their experience. I thought that perhaps bringing people together, i.e. the different stakeholders, to talk about the issues, problems, lessons learned, etc. that occur when IT folks and a research team come together to work on a project. I felt that such a discussion would yield a lot of valuable information that could then, somehow, be collected, organized, and disseminated in a useful manner. After a lot of talk and brainstorming within the team, we all agreed that this seemed a good path to take.

Making a long story short, this idea took hold, evolved, grew, and a couple of weeks ago, took the form of a mini-symposium that was part of the annual research retreat for our Center for Clinical and Translational Science. The program, entitled, “Data Acquisition, Data Management, and Subject Tracking in Clinical and Translational Research: Seeking Solutions to Persistent Challenges,” brought together the researchers from the mammography study, two faculty members from our Department of Quantitative Health Sciences, a biostatistician from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and a representative from our Information Services department. My role now is to pull all of the content from the symposium, along with other useful resources, and make it available online for the benefit of our research community.

This is all a really happy story for me in that I’ve been able to help facilitate and see something come together that we have been talking about in my library for a number of years now. Finally… FINALLY … people are starting to talk about issues around data. For too long, the only folks that I’ve heard talking about managing data are librarians. And frustratingly, we’ve mostly been talking among ourselves. But over the past months, I’ve been able to watch people that we’ve been wanting to reach addressing the issue. And best of all, the different players are talking to one another and not just among themselves.

So why the frustrating digression in my notes from Tuesday? Well, it’s because in my position, I can see several things happening. First, I can see several different camps, including the library, trying to stake their claim on one or another aspect in the data management services suite. And there’s a lot of overlap.

Secondly, there’s a lot of the feeling of “we’re the experts, so we should be the ones to do this.” Going along with this is also a lack of awareness and/or understanding of what each stakeholder really is expert in. For example, I might think that the people in Information Services ought to address issues around data storage and security. This is true, of course, but it leaves out the expertise that some in that department have around the proper ways to build databases and thus best practices in file structures and naming conventions and other things that might make me want to say, “Hey! That’s my area of expertise, not yours.” Similarly, many libraries developing data management services are focusing a great deal on providing data management planning in grant applications, but if you asked my colleagues in Quantitative Health Sciences, they’d say, “That’s what we do. Why are you saying it’s your role?”

talk talk talkLastly, despite the success of the mini-symposium, there’s still an awful lot of “talking amongst ourselves” going on. I see this more easily, and thus get a little frustrated at times, because I have my foot in several different areas where I’m hearing the same message. In other words, despite the success of bringing people together for the mini-symposium, there’s still a lot of room for improving how well we communicate and coordinate our efforts, not only campus-wide, but even within my library. So when I wrote “LET’S DECIDE!” it was my reaction to what I see as a really big need that we can fill. There is a huge need for someone to fix the broken communication system, help eliminate some of the duplication of efforts, and facilitate the development of services around data within my institution. And I believe that someone is me and my colleagues in the library. 

One of the characteristics of the library that was lost when we brought our resources to the researchers was our place as the hub of a lot of academic activity. People used to come to our physical library and here the different worlds of campus would collide. Researchers and faculty members and clinicians were forcibly less isolated in labs or offices. They literally ran into one another and likely had a bigger picture of things that were going on, simply through the interactions. At the same time, librarians were more easily able to know a lot of what was going on, too. We had a front row seat for all of the collisions. What I’ve found, as I got out of the library and started working on research teams, is that by going to the people that used to come to us, I’m bringing that lost quality back to life. While it can be incredibly frustrating to observe different groups addressing the same issues, each unaware of what the other is up to, the fact is that I can make them aware.

The mammography study team didn’t know that a team in the library has been working and working and working towards a goal of teaching good data management practices to the students, but as I’m a member of both teams, I did. So, when the study team made a suggestion that we recreate the symposium via a webinar series, archive it, and make it available to the students as part of their curriculum, I immediately chimed in, “Wait! Let me tell you what we’ve been working on.” A similar thing happened with the data management group in Quantitative Health Sciences. And now, we have a meeting scheduled for next month where we will bring these groups together – the research team, the QHS group, IS, and the library’s data services group.

To me, being able to facilitate these gatherings is one of the most rewarding parts of this informationist work. It’s a great role for librarians to take in the area of data management. As I wrote a few posts back, it’s the networking aspect of eScience and a place where we can put our skills to good use. The library itself used to bring people together. Today, librarians do.

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. 


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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