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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.

 

The Next Step(s)

22 May

Spring is a whirlwind in my workaday world. It’s chocked full of meetings, presentations, science boot camp, and all of the many things that make my job such a great one to have. While many academic librarians may be looking forward to the end of another semester and a few months of a quieter summer life in their libraries, those of us in medical schools rarely notice the ticking of the academic clock. Our students never leave, but just roll from one clerkship to another; one lab to another; one class to another. When I first started working in this environment, it took a little while to figure this out. I kept waiting for people to go away for the summer. I kept waiting for the parking lot to be a little bit less full. It’s true that during the height of July and August, there’s a little bit of a lull, but mostly we just keep rolling. Roll on!

One of the dates on my calendar is an upcoming talk at Tufts Medical School’s library, part of a staff development day for the University’s librarians around the idea of embedded librarianship. I feel like I’ve talked so much (and written so much) about my new(ish) role the past 9 months that I could do it in my sleep, but after writing that poetic welcome for the opening of “One Health” a couple of weeks back, I fear I’ve set my bar quite high in terms of public appearances. I should’ve known better. Regardless, the pressure is on to do something new – to share some new thoughts, ideas, and experiences; to hopefully offer some encouragement and/or inspiration for my colleagues in this area.

Embedded-Librarian This being the case, I’ve been spending a good bit of my early morning and evening reading time taking in some of the writings on the topic that I’d put aside for awhile. One of these is David Shumaker’s book, The Embedded Librarian, that came out last year. David is a member of the faculty at the School of Library and Information Science at Catholic University. For a good while, he has written “The Embedded Librarian” blog and much of his book is an expansion of the thoughts, ideas, interviews, and more that he’s shared on the blog. If you’re interested in this topic at all (and I imagine that if you read my blog, you must have some interest), I recommend it. I’ve found it to be a keeper, one for your professional bookshelf or, in my case, my Kindle.

In defining “embedded librarianship,” and in particular, distinguishing it from traditional librarianship or liaison librarianship, David captures a characteristic that I’ve been struggling to put a name to:

Embedded librarians go a step further than responsiveness – they anticipate. A senior academic administrator I interviewed recently described the embedded librarian she works with as a ‘fount of ideas.’ A corporate administrator told me his embedded librarian suggested ways of accomplishing tasks that others on the team wouldn’t think of – ways that save the team time and effort. Embedded librarians don’t wait to be asked. They use their close working relationships to identify needs and find solutions.

Along with the talk at Tufts, I’m also putting together my part of the presentation that I’ll be giving at Science Book Camp for Librarians next month. Its focus is upon interviewing researchers. Part of what I want to share in these talks (and here) is the idea found in this quote. It’s about anticipation. It’s about building on relationships. It’s something that Daniel Pink calls “problem finding.” I’ve also been reading articles in psychology books on attentive listening. I think it’s kind of that, too. I’ve been reading articles on narrative medicine, the practice of getting patients to tell the story of their illness. I think there’s some of that in it, as well.

It’s a bit of all of these things, this thing that I can’t quite put a single name to. It’s the marriage between your skills and expertise, and your patron’s need. It’s being able to readily identify that relationship and then act on it. It’s the next step after someone invites you to a meeting to discuss doing a literature review. It’s the, “And … what else?” The trick is that 9 times out of ten (or maybe 99 out of 100), the researcher doesn’t know the answer to that question. S/he hasn’t a clue. It’s the informationist’s and/or embedded librarian’s job to know. It’s our responsibility to be able to listen for the opportunities. And if I’ve learned one thing in these past months, it’s that there is NO shortage of opportunities. People are awash in a sea of information, communication breakdown, and disconnection.

I came away from the annual meeting of the Medical Library Association with a bubbling research question centered on our readiness to do this work, as well as the barriers that prevent us from doing it. Stay tuned for updates on where I go with this, but for now just take it as a comment that I see some interesting questions/issues around our abilities and desires to take this next step.

If you have any thoughts, suggestions, or models of what this elusive characteristic is called, I’d be delighted if you share them in the comments to this post.

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