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All of the Data that’s Fit to Collect

28 Jul

My graduate thesis in exercise physiology involved answering a research question that required collecting an awful lot of data before I had enough for analysis. I was comparing muscle fatigue in males and females, and in order to do this I had to find enough male-female pairs that matched for muscle volume. I took skin fold measurements and calculated the muscle volume of about 150 thighs belonging to men and women on the crew teams of Ithaca College. Out of all of that, I found 8 pairs that matched. It was hardly enough for grand findings, but it was enough to do the analysis, write my thesis, successfully defend it, and earn my degree. After all, that’s what research at this level is all about, i.e. learning how to put together a study and carry it all the way through to completion.

During my defense, one of my advisers asked, “With all of that data, you could have answered ___, too. Why didn’t you?” I hemmed and hawed for a bit, before finally answering, “Because that’s not what I said that I was going to do,” an answer that my statistics professor, also in attendance, said was the right answer. Was my adviser trying to trick me? I’m not sure, but it’s an experience that I remember often today when I read and talk and work in a field obsessed with the “data deluge.”

The temptation to do more than what you set out to do is ever present, maybe even more today than ever before. We have years worth of data – a lot of data – for the mammography study. When the grant proposal was written and funded, it laid out specifics regarding what analysis would be done; what questions would be answered. Five years down the road, it’s easy to see lots of other questions that can be answered with the same data. A common statement made in the team meetings is, “I think people want to know Y” or “Z is really important to find out.” The problem, however, is that we set out to answer X. While Y and Z may well be valuable, X is what the study was designed to answer.


“LOD Cloud Diagram as of September 2011″ by Anja Jentzsch – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I see a couple of issues with this scenario. First, grant money is a finite resource. In a time when practically all research operates under this funding model, people have a certain amount of time dedicated, i.e. paid for, by a grant. If that time gets used up answering peripheral questions or going down interesting, but unplanned, rabbit holes, the chances of completing the initial work on time is jeopardized. As one who has seen my original funded aims change over time, this can be frustrating. And don’t hear me saying that it’s all frustrating. On the contrary, along with the frustration can come some pretty cool work. The mini-symposium on data management that I described in earlier posts was a HUGE success for my work, but it’s not what we originally set out to do. The ends justified the means, in that case, but this isn’t always what happens.

The second issue I see is one that I hear many researchers express when the topics of data sharing and data reuse are raised, i.e. data is collected a certain way to answer a certain question. Likewise, it’s managed under the same auspices. Being concerned about what another researcher will do with data that was collected for another reason is legitimate. It’s not a concern that can’t be addressed, but it’s certainly worth noting. When I was finished with my thesis data, a couple of faculty members offered to take it and do some further research with it. There were some different questions that could be answered using the larger data set, but not without taking into account the original research question and the methods I used to collect all of it. Anonymous data sharing and reuse, without such context, doesn’t always afford such, at least not in the current climate where data citation and identification is still evolving. (All the more reason to keep working in this area.)

We have so many tools today that allow faster and more efficient data collection. We have grant projects that go on for years, making it difficult to say “no” to ask new questions of the same project that come up along the way. We are inundated with data and information and resources that make it virtually impossible to focus on any one thing for any length of time.

The possibilities of science in a data-driven environment seem limitless. It’s easy to forget that some limits do, in fact, exist.

Hello, Muddah. Hello, Fadduh.

16 Jun

Last week found me at the SIXTH Annual Science Boot Camp for Librarians here in New England. As an original member of the planning group for this yearly event, I’m proud that it’s an idea that’s continued to be of relevance to science librarians in the region, as well as to others from across the U.S.A. and Canada. I’m also really proud that over the past couple of years, we’ve seen the concept catch on with colleagues in other parts of the country so that now there are science boot camps for librarians in the West, the Southeast … the list keeps growing. And everywhere they pop up, the response from participants is a united, “This is GREAT!”

For those unfamiliar with the concept, these camps bring together science librarians and scientific researchers, providing a venue for librarians to learn more about different scientific disciplines and current research in the same. The goal is for librarians to gain a base level of knowledge that allows them to prompt discussions with researchers on their own campuses. Ideally, these discussions then lead to improvements and growth in library services offered to the research community. Over the years, I’ve learned about biochemistry, nanotechnology, geographic information systems, astronomy, robotics, remote sensing, evolutionary biology, epidemiology, public health, and so much more. Perhaps most interesting is that with every discipline I’ve learned, I have found at least one thing relevant to my own work as an embedded biomedical librarian. Even astronomy! What this says to me is that science crosses and involves so many disciplines today, learning about any one of them informs others.

This year’s Camp was held at the University of Connecticut and we had sessions focusing on computer science, personalized medicine, evolutionary biology, toxicology (pharmaceutical sciences), and a capstone presentation that covered how to both talk about and engage the public in science, i.e. promoting science literacy and citizen science. I’ll not recap each session here, but I will share my sketchnotes for those who might want to get a peek at some of the terrific content shared. Enjoy!


Speakers – Craig Wills, PhD; Krishna Venkatasubramanian, PhD; Dan Dougherty, PhD (all from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA)

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Speaker – Christopher Heinen, PhD, UConn Health

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Speakers – Kent Holsinger, PhD; Janine Caira, PhD (both from the University of Connecticut)

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Speakers – John Morris, PhD; Amy Bataille, PhD (both from the University of Connecticut)

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Speakers – Jonathan Garlick, PhD (Tufts University); Robert Stevenson, PhD (University of Massachusetts, Boston)

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The Limitations of Self-Service Start with “Self”

9 May

I went to my public library last weekend. It was the first time that I’d been there in several months and “WOW!” was I in for some surprises. The first thing that I noticed was the space that used to be the Friends of the Library’s book store was now reconfigured and contained a really long series/system of conveyor belts and other such equipment. Bright red. My first thought was that they’d purchased an on-demand printer, the kind that prints copies of books that a library doesn’t have right there on the spot. “Cool!”, I thought. But then I saw a sign that explained that this was the new material return system. Quite fancy, indeed. 

Next, I walked the few steps forward into the main area and noticed the entire front desk was gone. The check-out stations, the reserve shelves, the people there to help… all gone. In its place was a cafe stand with coffee, tea, and assorted other goodies, some tables and chairs, and a very nice new bookstore for the Friends group. Then I saw an “Information Center” (round) prominently placed in the middle of the main entry. It was staffed with several people, each one of them helping patrons. I saw more self-serve check-out counters/machines for videos, DVDs, and books. I saw more stand-alone computer stations for searching the library catalog. In brief, I saw a complete “Do It Yourself” library.

The DIY movement is big, you know. You can check-out your own groceries. You can add channels to your cable package through your remote control. You can serve up your own yogurt at the frozen yogurt store. And of course, you can pump your own gas. This we’ve been doing forever.

Back in the 50s and 60s, my grandfather, Granddaddy Gore, owned a service station in Alexandria, Virginia. It was right on Route 1, the main thoroughfare into and out of Washington, DC. I remember stories my granddaddy told of senators and members of congress, and often their drivers, stopping in for service on their way to and from work. We used to kid him that he knew everyone in Alexandria and it really wasn’t much of an exaggeration. Friendly and outgoing, Granddaddy Gore would strike up a conversation with anyone. When I delivered his eulogy, a number of years ago now, I said, “The world is a little less friendlier today, without Granddaddy in it.” 

Granddaddy Gore_ESSO Pics_Page_2

Gore’s Esso Servicecenter

I thought of my grandfather and his SERVICEcenter this past week after visiting my public library.  I thought of him again as I was putting gas in my car this morning and couldn’t get the darned gas cap off, spending a good 10-minutes prying the door open with a screwdriver. And as I thought about how much we’ve replaced with self-service in our lives, I thought about some of the things that we’ve given up for the sake of “convenience.” 

My own library has moved many once-mediated tasks to self-service. It makes good sense, economically. You really don’t need people to staff a desk and check-out books now and then. You don’t need a person to get a reserve item for a medical student. We’re an academic health sciences library. We don’t check out many books and we serve a bunch of people who are used to doing things themselves. Their way. And that’s A-OK by me. 

However, as I sat in a planning meeting for a symposium that the mammography study team is hosting in a couple of weeks and I listened to the discussion between the researchers, the representatives from Quantitative Health Sciences, the representative from Information Services, and the representative from the Library (moi) each offer our input and stake our claims to the aspects of data management we provide, I thought again about my grandfather’s servicecenter and what perhaps is an unplanned (and unwanted) repercussion to our self-service world… we do everything ourselves

"How can I help you?"

“How can I help you?”

Now don’t get me wrong, the idea of self-sufficiency is a good one, for sure. It’s good to know how to do things for yourself. It saves time and effort and money. It saves the hassle of fitting into someone else’s schedule. It saves the embarrassment of admitting you don’t know how to do something that you think you should.

But does it?

Are our efforts at doing everything ourselves really the most efficient? When multiple people end up duplicating work, are we really saving money? When you continually have to teach yourself something new, rather than going to someone who already knows it, are you saving yourself any time and/or any effort?

As I’ve written in the past, I believe that one of the biggest hurdles preventing us from making great strides in research (in many things) is communication. People simply don’t know what other people know. They don’t know what other people do. And when you don’t know these things and you live in a culture that promotes DIY behavior, that’s exactly what you end up getting, i.e. everyone doing everything for themselves. And more than a little frustrated in the process.

I once took an auto mechanics class in the adult learning program of a local public school system, just so I’d know how to change the oil in my car. And I did it. I changed the oil in my car. Twice. After crawling under my car, getting filthy dirty, trying to find the right place to recycle used motor oil, I figured that really this is a job better suited to the folks at the oil change place. The folks that do this every day. The folks that have the skills and the tools and the expertise to change my oil in under 30-minutes. I’m glad I learned how to do it, but I’m more glad that they exist to do it for me. 

Making a House Call

Making a House Call

As we find our places on research teams and in other settings that allow us the opportunity to say, “You know, I can do that for you. That’s really what I know how to do,” the more value librarians will add to the working order of things. When it comes to information, data, and knowledge management, there are a thousand steps to take and tasks to be done. No one group needs to do them all and surely no three groups need to be doing them all! I was incredibly frustrated when I first stepped out of that planning meeting, but afterward saw that it was a great opportunity to begin really dissecting these tasks and processes, and figuring out which of us does what part(s) best. Once we know that and can communicate it widely to the research community here, we’ll greatly improve the work we do. And I’m glad to report that we’re on our way in this task.

If It Ain’t Broke…

4 Apr

There’s a world that exists independently of your presence. Sounds, lights, people – there is an entire space that functions quite well without you. It is necessary to see and understand that which already exists to know what contribution you can make. (Livingston Taylor, Stage Performance)

A friend recommended Livingston Taylor’s book to me. He told me it’s filled with terrific advice to help develop skills and techniques for performing on stage, something that I do with both my band and at open mics. What he didn’t tell me – because why would he ever think of it? – is that it’s also filled with terrific advice for librarians, the above quote but one example.

In interviewing researchers about their data practices, one thing that has become pretty clear to me is that most people follow certain processes and/or have certain habits because they work. It isn’t so much that they don’t want our help in managing their information and data, but rather they don’t see that they need it. Everyone knows a person or two who keeps an incredibly cluttered desk. The registrar at a school I once went to was one of these people. The man worked behind a mountain of files and papers and books. You couldn’t see one square inch of his desk. You could hardly find one square foot of clear floor space to stand, if you had to go see him for anything. That said, no matter what you went to see him for, he could reach his hand into the middle of some pile within a second and produce for you just what you needed. Was it a disaster waiting to happen? Sure! I feel for whoever assumed his duties when he retired. What a nightmare it likely was. And you can imagine the disruption and chaos that could have occurred if anything suddenly happened to him. But, you would be hard-pressed to convince him to adopt a different system of organization by arguing that his didn’t work. It did. It worked quite well for him.

I think one of the big mistakes that we can make when we’re trying to develop and sell new services to our patrons is forgetting to first gain a really good understanding of their world. Interviewing folks is really helpful to this end. So is simply observing people; paying attention to how they work. We can get a little insight into how a student finds a database on our website by asking her, but we can probably get a bigger picture by watching. We all describe how we do things a little differently than we may actually do them. If you ask me how I form a G chord on my mandolin, I’ll put all four fingers on the fret board. If you saw me playing with friends last night, you’d have seen me take a dozen shortcuts. If I want to develop some kind of tool that would help me play better (besides practice, practice, practice), I’d do well to take both situations into account.

For a long time, medical librarians have been claiming expertise in the area of searching the literature. We are “expert searchers,” we like to say. We get really frustrated when students or clinicians or researchers don’t come to us for help. We fret over their incompetency. We either get angry or suffer inferiority complexes when we’re brushed aside unneeded. “They don’t know what they’re missing,” we think. Maybe. But also, we don’t know what we’re missing – the fact that the way in which these folks are searching is working for them. Most of the time, it works just fine. With this being the case, it’s pretty hard to convince them otherwise. We need a different tact.

As we begin to promote the librarian’s role in data management, I hope we don’t repeat some of these same mistakes. We need to understand how people are already managing their data. When we talk about how important it is to share data, it’s good to know ahead of time that most of the people in the room already share data. Like searching, we claim expertise in areas that we believe can make the situation better, but we need to remember that “there’s an entire space that functions quite well” without us. With this mindset, we’re likely better able to see how we can fit rather than how we can fix. We hope that the final outcome is that we fix a thing or two, but saying (or even thinking),”You’re doing it wrong!” isn’t going to get us very far in finding where we fit. Accomplishing the latter will ultimately allow us to develop and provide the kind of tools and services that people will both want and use.

Next week, I’m off to the Texas Library Association’s annual conference. I’m looking forward to reporting some fun facts from there, all with a bit of Texas twang!

Playing Along

Playing Along

In the Doldrums

24 Feb

When I was in elementary school, I had a subscription to National Geographic World magazine (today called, National Geographic Kids). One issue featured a story about Robin Lee Graham, a teenager who circumnavigated the world alone in his 24-foot sloop, “Dove.” I was fascinated by the story, searched for the stories he wrote for National Geographic, and later, read his memoir that he titled after his boat. Over the years, I’ve become somewhat like Mel Gibson’s character, Jerry Fletcher, in the movie, Conspiracy Theory; the guy who compulsively buys copies of Catcher in the Rye. I have six copies of Graham’s book, as well as original copies of those National Geographic issues in which he reported about his travels. There’s something about the story that touched me when I was young and it’s always stayed with me. It’s the story of adventure; it’s the story of a kid who doesn’t quite fit in, yet finds a passion to follow; and it’s the story of a person moving freely and slowly through life, discovering the world in which we live. (You can read more about Robin’s story here.)

One photograph in the book shows Robin sitting, legs outstretched and controlling the rudder, staring off into the distance. He has a paperback in his hand, held open by a finger while it rests on the bench beside him. There is not a ripple in the water; not a sign of a breeze anywhere. The caption: “In the doldrums.”

The doldrums is a colloquial expression derived from historical maritime usage, in which it refers to those parts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean affected by the Intertropical Convergence Zone, a low-pressure area around the equator where the prevailing winds are calm. ~ Wikipedia

I have never sailed in the geographical doldrums, but I have been stranded in a motor-less sailboat when the wind dies. I have floated for a few hours, waiting for just enough of a breeze to get home. There’s not much to do, save put on some sunscreen and read a book. 

I thought of this picture this morning and pulled one of my copies of Dove off the shelf. “Yep,” I thought to myself, “that about sums it up.”

Most of the time, I sail through work with decent winds. Sometimes they require that I take a different tack, that I zig-zag, taking that back-and-forth approach to get to my destination. Sometimes they blow a bit too hard, producing rough seas. But for the most part, work-life provides a steady breeze to make the days go by filled with plenty of interesting and fulfilling activities. But, every now and then, I hit the doldrums.

A lot of my focus at work of late is focused on how we define, present, and raise the awareness of our patrons as to the services we provide. As you know, many of these services are new and/or different for us. Providing support around research data, embedding ourselves to provide tailored knowledge and information management services, tracking scholarly communications and research impact are all areas that are evolving and/or coming into being. One result of working in this climate is that I find I repeat myself over and over and over again. Similarly, I hear others doing the same time and again. I sit in meetings and conference calls and webinars and training classes and can’t help but feel, sometimes, that I’m stuck in the movie, Groundhog Day. I have lots of comments in the sidebars of my notes that say things like, “We’ve done this already” and “I heard this at so and so” and “See…” There are a lot of “see…” references. 

Of course, much of this is just what happens – better put, it’s what has to happen – if/when you want to be successful at raising the awareness of others, and marketing new ideas and services. You have to repeat yourself many times to many different audiences. Similarly, you hear colleagues repeating the same message as we all try to chart these new waters (keeping with my nautical theme). The challenge for me is to not to get stuck in the doldrums of repetition, but continually find new ways to keep the message and the energy of it going. If you face similar challenges and/or have some thoughts to suggest for keeping the winds steady, please share them in the comments. 

One rule: Please do not claim that any doldrums are related to winter weather. I love winter weather and don’t want to hear others grousing about it. ;)

No doldrums here!

No doldrums here!

The Power of Positive Pete

7 Feb
Photo taken by Bobak Ha'Eri, on November 1, 2008. Used with permission.

Photo taken by Bobak Ha’Eri, on November 1, 2008. Used with permission.

Congratulations to the Seattle Seahawks, winners of Super Bowl XLVIII (the NFL loves those Roman numerals)! Congratulations to all of the players, the coaches and staff, the team owners and management, and to all of their terrific fans who have cheered long and loud for their team. 

Yes, I’m a sports fan. My dad and I shared practically every weekday breakfast during my years from elementary school through high school, taking turns reading the sports section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I love athletics, competition, games, and the many, many lessons that one can learn through playing and watching sports. Team work, discipline, self-confidence, striving to be one’s best, developing good habits around health and fitness, and having fun; despite everything that’s wrong with sports today (and there’s plenty!), these fundamental aspects remain at the core of all that’s good about sport. 

As a sports fan, I was one of the 108.7 million people who tuned in to watch last Sunday’s Super Bowl. I may have been about one of the 3 viewers who could care less about the commercials (I mute them, regardless of the show or event that they are part of). I tuned in to watch the game. And to watch Pete. I tuned in hoping to see Pete Carroll coach his team to victory. And he did.

Why Pete Carroll? Well, I’ve followed his career for awhile, from his early failures in the NFL (the Jets and the Patriots), to his success at the University of Southern California, to his return to the NFL with the Seahawks. If you’ve never paid any attention to him, even if you give not a whit about football or sports, once you see or read any story about him, it’s pretty hard not to be captivated by him. The guy’s outlook, his energy, his enthusiasm … it’s downright infectious. He makes competition and hard work and continued focus fun.

Now I live in New England and I cheer for an awfully successful NFL team (Go Patriots!) with one heck of a head coach (arguably the best ever), but seriously, if I’ve got to pick between Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick as to who I want to hang out with on any given day of the week, I’m looking for Pete eight ways to Sunday. I like upbeat. I like positive energy. I like fun!

And if I was ever asked to pick a head coach for a team of professional librarians, I’m going with Pete, too. Here’s why:

Last week, a discussion broke out on the medical librarian listserv, MEDLIB-L, around the topic of libraries closing. Sadly, this is not that uncommon of a discussion. Too often the list gets another email from another librarian who has recently lost his/her job due to his/her library being closed. This happens more often to hospital and/or clinical libraries, but even academic libraries are not immune from huge changes and the continual loss of positions (see my posts from this past summer for evidence of that very thing happening in my own library). For several days, people offered any number of ideas for how librarians, collectively and as individuals, could approach this problem/issue. Some were far-fetched. Some have been tried before without much success. Some were new and worth giving a go.

The discussion went on this way for about three days, i.e. in a generally positive tone, even when calling for big changes, until someone lobbed a “None of it matters anyway” grenade onto the gathering.

Now in truth, I take real issue with this kind of communication etiquette. Be it during an online discussion, face-to-face meeting, or supper table conversation, I don’t care for the practice of loaded comments that are thrown in for no other real purpose than to silence the whole talk. Some folks found the comment “realistic.” That’s fair. It may well be the reality of many a corporation and/or hospital with a highest priority being the bottom line, that libraries and librarians are an easy target for cutting. In an age of easy access to information, why do hospitals need libraries or more, librarians? Why do schools? Why do towns? Yes, it is a reality of the world in which we live that institutions and entities that do not generate profit are deemed less valuable. 

That said, I couldn’t help but feel my hackles go up when I read a colleague saying to a group of colleagues, “It doesn’t matter what we do, administrations will make the decisions that they make, regardless” (paraphrasing) and it made me furious when another gave thanks for a “voice of reality” begin spoken at last. If this is our reality, I thought, then why do I even show up in the morning? 

Perhaps the comments bothered me most because I took them personally. Many years ago, my friends had a nickname for me. This nickname grew out of a tendency that I had (still have, sometimes) to see the worst in reality. I often defaulted to the same, “What difference does it make?” attitude that I heard (interpreted) being shared by some of my colleagues on that list. My nickname was, “The Prophetess of Doom.”

Fortunately, since those days, I’ve learned some practices and the science behind them to be a little less “doom and gloomy” in my disposition and outlook on life. A lot of this centers around understanding how intricately connected our thoughts are with our behavior and attitudes. There’s an awful lot of evidence to support the fact that what we see and how we see it, what we say and how we say it, what we think and how we think it, and what we do and how we do it, are all intertwined. I’m not talking the Practice of Pollyanna, but of cognitive theory:

The basic proposition of cognitive theory is that information processing is a defining feature of what it means to be human, enabling individuals to make meaningful representations of themselves and their world. Humans are in a continual state of processing streams of information from their external and internal environments. They receive, encode, interpret, store, and retrieve information; this information processing plays a vital role in human adaptation and survival (Clark DA, Beck AT, Alford BA: Scientific Foundations of Cognitive Theory and Therapy of Depression. New York, Wiley, 1999).

When librarians say that our reality is, “Nothing that I do matters,” whether we believe that we’re being self-defeating or not, we are setting ourselves up for defeat. We are interpreting our environment as one in which we cannot win; where we cannot find value. How is this possibly a strategy for professional survival?

Enter my favorite coach:

After he got fired from the New England Patriots, Pete Carroll set out to purposefully articulate for himself his core values and beliefs, those things that were most true about himself and how he approached life (and by default, coaching). He dubbed his philosophy, “Win Forever“, and based it upon the value(s) of competition. For him, competition was at the root of his being. It made him aspire to always be the best that he could be, regardless of the circumstances. While it’s easy to see competition in sports, his larger point is that we all compete to be ourselves. It doesn’t matter if you have an opposing team, an opposing management, an opposing societal shift in information use and delivery that’s sucking away the foundations of your very profession; in the end, you are competing with yourself to be your best and when you succeed at that, you’ve succeeded. Period.

I believe that there’s a message that librarians can take from Coach Carroll, and not just because he won the Super Bowl on Sunday, but because his message seems to say that in a time when we may feel like nothing much matters, that’s exactly the time to believe the we matter the most. It takes discipline, a willingness to work hard, and a willingness to adjust your focus and attitudes so that you can make the changes that you need to make in order to reach the potential that you wish to reach. It’s a process of self-discovery, creating a vision that is true to yourself, and competing to hold onto your vision and ideals through any number of ups and downs in your career. It’s not about “nothing that I do matters.” It’s about “everything that I do matters.”

“If the goals, strategies, and techniques you have laid out for yourself are really true to your core self, you will always be able to get back to them. You will always want to get back to them.”  (Pete Carroll, Win Forever: Live, Work, and Play Like a Champion)

Making Tracks

27 Jan
Raccoon Tracks

Raccoon Tracks

I’ve been writing and thinking and talking about how we communicate information and/or knowledge lately and in a recent meeting, flippantly said, “I’m going to track myself and my own information seeking behavior for a week.” True to my own word, I’m starting this today. Check in at the end of the week to see both how well I track (I have a feeling it’s going to be hard) and any patterns in my behavior that emerge. I hope that in doing this for myself, I’ll have a better understanding of some of the issues, processes, patterns – general insights – into what I might find if I sought to do the same exercise for researchers or another patron group.

And feel free to join me and share your thoughts, too. Maybe collectively we can learn a thing or two.

(During a morning walk last week with Eliza the puppy, I saw a raccoon up in a tree. It was a first for me and I’ve been looking for his/her tracks ever day since.)

Sins of Omission

8 Jan

I want to thank everyone who took the time to comment, via the comment section or email, on my last post. I’ve been writing this blog for awhile now and written a number of posts (84, counting this one), and my post from last week may have received the most “this is my favorite” comments from readers. Evidently, I struck a chord and of course, I immediately began to wonder why.

It’s not a big stretch, given my picture on this blog and my social media name, mandosally, that I play the mandolin. What you might not know, however, is that I also play the drums. In fact, I’ve been a drummer many more years than I’ve been a mandolinist. It started when I walked into a drum shop in Portland, Maine, and said to the fellow working there, “Is it weird for a 30-something year old woman to want to play the drums?” Chris, the fellow running the shop, gave me an enthusiastic, “Are you kidding? Heck no!” response and I signed up for lessons on the spot. I was in my early 30s then. I’m in my early 50s now. You can do the math to figure out how long I’ve been percussing (not to be confused with cussing). You might not also know that the mandolin is the traditional percussion instrument of bluegrass and/or old-time music. I didn’t know this when I started playing the mandolin about 8 years ago, but it makes a lot of sense to me today.

By Hyacinth (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Hyacinth (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

What does any of this have to do with why I think people resonated with my “getting cut from the team” post? Well, in percussion (music in general), there are notes called “ghost notes.” They’re also called “dead notes” or “false notes” and basically are notes that you either play very quietly or not at all. They accentuate the moment by being silent, or at least very quiet. It’s different than a rest, though for the purposes of my point here, you can think of both as what’s left out. 

In the literature, what’s often left out are research studies that didn’t prove anything, case studies that found nothing, and brief communications and/or “in action” articles that report what didn’t work or what not to do. This is a shame, isn’t it? We learn an awful lot when we experience something that doesn’t work; when we set out to do something and fail at it. But rarely does anyone want to write up a failure and even more rarely does a publisher want to publish it. What we don’t write, report, share… these things are like the ghost notes of our work. And unfortunately, the result of this “musical pattern” is too often that we repeat failures that we could have easily avoided, if only our peers and colleagues had shared them. In other words, what we don’t write has as much, sometimes more, of an impact than what we write.

The gist of most of the comments that I heard from people after last week’s post was, “Thank you for sharing what didn’t work.” I believe that the reason people appreciated it is because we don’t share these experiences nearly enough. The other really gratifying sentiment said to me was, “Thank you for showing how a negative (aka “a failure”) isn’t a bad thing. Thank you for being positive.” Truthfully, there wasn’t a darned thing personal about the decision (it was all about grant funding and a PI’s decision to go with another person already a part of the funded work) and that makes it pretty easy to stay positive. We are a grant fund-driven institution. That’s the reality. If librarians (and libraries) want to get into this arena, we have to accept that reality. We will come and go on teams and projects, we will juggle multiple tasks, and we will never have enough time to do everything that we wish we could do. It’s everyone’s reality. If you approach it that way and reflectively look at experiences, noting what you can learn from them, you’ll remain a lot more positive. You’ll also become better at what you do. That’s my belief, anyway.

During the mammography study team’s weekly meeting yesterday, I was asked about what I think has worked and not worked during my time as an informationist on the study. My formal, funded time working with them is up at the end of this month, though I’ll continue to work with them to wrap up some projects. As I’ve said all along, the team has been a terrific one for me to work with/on because they’ve been as interested in the value of this role as we in libraries are. I shared with them what I think has worked well and what I think hasn’t work so well. They offered feedback and their individual perspectives, too. The discussion wasn’t planned, but the fact that it happened was great. 

One thing that I heard myself saying during the discussion (what I’ve heard myself saying for months now) is that there are very few rights and wrongs, pros and cons, and clear answers to what makes – or will make – an informationist a viable, sustainable, alternative or complementary model for librarians and the library. There are so many variables that it’s hard to pin down. Similarly, there are still a lot of unknowns about what the library and librarian of the future, meaning next week, will look like.  We work in a rapidly evolving field, something pretty ironic for such an old, old profession, and the clash of these two characteristics is clearly evident in most of our professional issues and discussions today.

Moving forward, I hope we will all be encouraged and inspired to share our experiences – good and bad – in open venues so that we can all learn from one another. In a time when we’re often feeling our way through the unknown, sharing is good for any number of reasons.


Getting Cut from the Team

3 Jan
Doing the "Shark Attack" cheer.

Doing the “Shark Attack” cheer.

I love ice hockey. Ever since I was a kid and used to tag along with my season ticket-holder dad to the Richmond (VA) Robins games, I’ve loved it. I wish I could have played it. I wish I could put on all of those pads and fly around the ice, smashing into other people and the boards. I love the rough and tumble, blue collar nature of the sport. I love its northern roots. I love the cold, winter, snow, ice, and ice hockey. I live in the right place.

I grew up to be a season ticket holder myself; a fan of my hometown team, the Worcester Sharks, the AHL affiliate of the San Jose Sharks (baseball fans, think Triple-A; football fans think University of Miami). Early in December, I went on the season ticket holder bus trip to Manchester, NH, to cheer for the Sharks as they took on the Manchester Monarchs. On the ride up, we watched the movie, “Miracle.” Arguably the greatest American sports story, the movie tells of the 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team – at that time, a group of amateur and college players – who, against great odds, defeated one of the best hockey teams in history, the Soviet Union national team. It’s a movie and a story that makes me cry every time I see it. It’s a story that’s symbolic of so much that is the best in us in sports and in life. 

In the movie, there’s a particularly emotional scene where Coach Herb Brooks has to cut one last player in order to get the final roster to 20. He carried 21 players as long as he could, but when it came time for the Olympics to begin, he could only carry 20 guys on the team. The last player cut from the squad was Ralph Cox. Brooks himself had once been the last player cut from an Olympic squad (1960), so he knew a particular truth about the decision; (1) it was terribly difficult to make and (2) it wasn’t to be the crushing end of Cox’s hockey career. Both men went on to play hockey after this shared life event and both had success. But in 1960 and in 1980, neither would make their respective teams. They were each the last ones cut.

I got word last week that I’ve been cut from one of the research teams/projects that I’ve been working on for awhile. After a year of feeling like I was rolling right along in my new(ish) role as an embedded librarian and informationist, snaring opportunities and having  lot of success, I got cut. And I admit, it was a little bit of a blow. There’s not enough money on the grant to keep me, I haven’t been able to carve out the time necessary to do my best work, and there’s someone else who can do what I was doing for the team. I’ve been cut. 

By far, the hardest part of doing this embedded role is the feeling of being pulled in multiple directions, or perhaps better stated, having your foot in multiple doors. It’s hard to balance it all. I’ve tried to learn a lot about project management, prioritizing, organizing time and tasks, and the like, but at the end of the day, I still have a long way to go to be better at doing this. I don’t think I’m alone in my struggle, either. I think that we all have a bit of a hard time juggling multiple roles and projects, particularly as we continue to do more with less. Lots of people work in such an environment. And as it doesn’t appear that there’s any relief and/or change in this situation in the future, I need to do my best to get better at doing my best in this setting. It’s a goal for the new year.

So while the sting of being cut is still there, I’m also reminding myself that Herb Brooks and Ralph Cox went on to do good, even great, things in their lives. Getting cut from the team isn’t the end of the world. It’s not even the end of the season.

A clean desk for 2014. A clean "ice rink" for my Sharks bobbleheads!

A clean desk for 2014. A clean “ice rink” for my Sharks bobbleheads!

Change is Inevitable, but is Transformation?

12 Dec

Maria Sibylla Merian [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My colleague, Mary Piorun, is defending her doctoral dissertation this afternoon. (Woohoo!! Go, Mary! Go!) To help her get ready, a bunch of us listened to her give her presentation earlier this week. Her topic is on transformational change in organizations, in particular, this type of change in academic libraries today. I found it to be pretty interesting stuff, not just as it relates to our work in eScience and data management (the focus of Mary’s research question), but the bigger topic of how organizations change, in general. Transformation suggests significant shifts in one’s thinking, behavior, environment, etc. How do such changes happen? What are the components of the change and how do leaders usher their organization through them? Don’t ask me, ask Mary. She’s the one who’s spent the last several years reading and thinking and writing about it. You can reach her at… 

But seriously, as a librarian in today’s changing environment, as an exercise physiologist who encourages behavior changes around exercise and diet, and as a member of a committee at my church called the “Transition Team,” I can’t help but be curious about how and why we change. And how and why we don’t. 

We often hear that change is inevitable and I won’t argue that, but there are lots of different levels of change. Compared to changing an institutional mindset, choosing a salad for lunch is pretty easy. Relatively speaking. Libraries – at least my library – are undergoing some significant, likely even defined as transformational changes. We have reorganized a few times since I came on board 9 years ago. We have made some big shifts in the services we provide and how we provide them. However, the latest changes require a different level of shifting and adjustment. We are, in many ways, redefining what it means to be a librarian on this campus. This is certainly the case for my role as a librarian here. I do very different things today than I did a couple of years ago. I think of myself and my role in very different ways than I did then. I operate with a different mindset – some days clearer than others – than I did before. As Mary outlined the process of this kind of change during her talk, I could see how it has played out in my own career the past years.

I remain curious, though, of how many times and how many levels of an organization have to go through this process before the whole of the institution experiences transformational change. I asked Mary this question and she said that it’s an area that certainly needs research. As a result of leadership taking us through transformation, I may experience a real shift in my understanding of who I am as a librarian. Similarly, our library, as a whole, over time, will hopefully achieve the same. But what’s next? Who is next? Because we are an organization within a larger institution, it seems to me that our work isn’t finished here until we can change the whole of the institution in how it perceives the library and librarians. It’s a big job ahead, no doubt.

Maybe we’ll get Mary to take it on as soon as she finishes up that defense! 


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