Tag Archives: data management

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.

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

Brush with GREATness!!

22 Jan

Now this is some highlight in my career! For a librarian who was in the 5th grade when “Happy Days” first aired, sharing a spread with the Fonz is … AAAAAYYY!

Me and the Fonz

If you happen to be attending the Texas Library Association Annual Conference in San Antonio in April, look us both up!

My schedule:

  • eScience: Emerging Roles for Librarians in Research Data Management - CPE #449, Thursday, April 10, 11-11:50
  • Embedded Librarians are Everywhere… and They Tell All! – CPE #547, Friday, April 11, 10-11:50 (I’ll be sharing the stage w/ Sarah Jones, Spencer Stuart, & Cassandra Kvenild from the University of Wyoming Libraries, David Shumaker from Catholic University of America’s Dept of Library and Information Science, and Laura Young of Austin Ventures.)

Mr. Winkler’s schedule:

  • General Session III, Friday, April 11, 1:30-3:10

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. 

 

Two and Two and Two: Making Connections

24 Oct

Two meetings with two principal investigators about two grant proposals over two days lead me to two observations and thoughts about the state of our profession and the work that we do:

1. Is the library a silo, too?

We speak a good bit in the profession about how often those that we serve, our patrons, live and work in silos. Scientists do research in specific areas. Departments treat diseases within a specialized field. Administrators make decisions within the context of the the top level that they know best. It’s very common. And it makes us quite frustrated because the reality of the world is that we rarely function in a world that doesn’t (or couldn’t) benefit from other areas, if only we knew about them. However, “Nobody knows what I do!” is a common cry not just from librarians, but across the board. Is this perhaps a glimpse that we, like our patrons, are living in a silo that we’ve created for ourselves? 

Yesterday, I sat down with a researcher to do some work on the proposal that we’re submitting for the next round of informationist grants from the National Library of Medicine. It is an absolutely fantastic project and each time that I come away from talking with Dr. Kennedy, I can’t help but think how refreshing it is to speak with a researcher who knows as much, no, more than I do, around the issues related to data sharing. Turns out that he’s internationally known as a proponent of data sharing in his field (neuroimaging), leading projects and initiatives and working groups and all sorts of attempts at advocating among his peers for the necessity of this practice. It is by chance – pure chance – that our paths crossed and that this crossing led us to work on the grant proposal together. You see, he knew of the RFP for the informationist supplement grants because of his connections to colleagues at the National Library of Medicine. I happened to give a talk at one of his lab’s meetings awhile back on an unrelated topic and he noted that the title on my signature line includes “informationist.” Thus, he asked me what this meant, what I did, what I was doing related to the supplement awards, and if I’d be interested in helping him on a project idea that he had. This is how we came to yesterday.

What I want to point out, however, is that Dr. Kennedy came across this information with no connection to the library. He learned of it from a colleague at the National Library of Medicine, yet that colleague, evidently, didn’t think to point him to his library as a place to find an informationist. 

Are you following me?

There’s a chat happening on the MEDLIB-l listserv today (and other days and in other circles of our profession, too, of course) regarding our name, i.e. should we incorporate “knowledge” into our job titles, use it in some form instead of “library” to describe our workplace, etc. I’m not going to get into that discussion here, but I bring it up because a consistent thread in these discussions is that if our patrons don’t know the value of the library, then we are evidently doing something wrong in our work.

To this I say, “Yes and no.” 

Yes, sometimes we haven’t done the best job at getting out and letting people know how we can build partnerships, collaborate on research projects, embed ourselves in curriculum, teach classes on a variety of relevant subjects, and much more. Our history is as a passive profession. For years and years and years we were able to meet our patrons here, in the library. They had to come to us to use our resources. Once here, they made the association that librarians were important because libraries had resources. But those days have been gone for decades now and we haven’t always been the best at getting out and helping people associate us less with the library and more with our skills. WE are the resource that we really need to save now, not the library or the journal collections or the subscription to UpToDate. We cost the administration more than those other resources, thus we best be able to prove that we are the resource worth keeping the next time the forced budget cuts come along.

But I also say no to the belief that if people don’t know our value, we’re doing something wrong. I’ve done a ton of right things over the past year and a half as an embedded informationist that have led me to all sorts of fantastic new opportunities, yet still it’s only by chance that I discover someone right here on my very campus who has been working on and advocating for many of the same things we’ve been talking about here in the Library. We work in different worlds, all of us, and despite the forward strides and promise of networked science, it remains so darned impossible to be able to make all of the connections that we could make that would ultimately lead to better work, e.g. science, medicine, information management. Work that would prove our value.

To me, that realization really hit home when yesterday when I thought about how someone who works for the National Library of Medicine, the funding agency behind these informationist grants (the National LIBRARY of Medicine) didn’t associate the library with those awards. I don’t say that out of any place of judgment, either. Well… maybe a little, but the truth is that there’s no point in judging and/or blaming and/or pointing fingers. It is simply our reality. We all live and work in some degree of a silo, but if we want to be associated with value, we need to be valuable. Visible and valuable. Both.

2. “You have a unique skill that only a handful of people on this campus have.”

I was told this today by another principal investigator as we discussed the rewriting of another grant proposal. The skill she refers to is my knowledge of how to use and leverage social media for all sorts of positive things. Her point was that when you have something that few others have, you’ve got to use it. Social media is trendy in medical research today, but few medical researchers actually use social media. They want the money to do the research, yet don’t have the expertise in the products to know how to use them effectively. Thus, when you do have the expertise, you have value. Research teams need you on their team. This is terrific!

Yet I felt myself hesitating at the thought that as a librarian, the skill I would bring to a research team lies in social media. Is that a librarian skill? As we talked though, the researcher described to me how knowing the social media tools and the social media landscape affords you the skill of knowing better how to collect and manage the data that’s generated from the use of these tools. Novices don’t have that. And data management… now THAT is a skill that the library is clamoring to get into. But even for me and my “out of the library box” thinking, making this connection took a few minutes. Even for me! 

It surprised me, but I wonder if as we break out of our silos and work closely with others, perhaps one of the things that gets blurry is the answer to the question, “Who knows what?” What are librarians supposed to know? What are researchers supposed to know? What do doctors know? And who does what? I think that it’s this vagueness that makes us argue over (or more politely, discuss) what we call ourselves, what services we provide, and what our value really is. Silos and walls keep us separated, but they also keep us neat and orderly. We say that they need to go. Are we ready for the flood of uncertainty that all the mixing-up to come will bring? 

National Preparedness Month was last month, but you can still celebrate it today.

life-preserver

 

Whad’ya Know? (Not Much)

26 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s my take on all of this…

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

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

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

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

Video

Data Hoarder

10 Apr

Next time you have to teach data management to a group of researchers or students, here’s a very funny piece you can share (with the right audience, of course). Thanks to my colleague, Katie Houk, at Tufts Medical School for bringing it to my attention. Enjoy! :)

If You Insist…

5 Apr

… or, my case against being a data curator.

Pastor Shep © Susan Mattinson, 2012.  Reproduction permitted with permission of creator.

Pastor Shep © Susan Mattinson, 2012. Reproduction permitted with permission of creator.

Perhaps it is because I am married to an artist. Maybe it’s the fact that I have a sorority sister from my college days who has her doctorate in art history. Maybe it’s because before I became an exercise physiologist and a librarian, I was a member of the clergy, the profession from which the word “curate” originates. Maybe I’m nothing more than a real stickler for people using the correct word to describe what they do. But regardless of the reason, I simply cannot stand how my profession has co-opted the word “curate,” and worse, morphed it into a noun by calling it “curation.” If I had a dollar for every time the word was used at this week’s eScience Symposium, I’d be on vacation today.

Whenever I get on my soapbox about this, people remind me that the meanings of words change all of the time. Similarly, we create new words quite often, our attempt to get at what we really mean. To these comments I say, “I agree, but that’s not the point.”

“So, what is the point?”, you may ask. The point is this – I am bothered by why we feel the need to attach this word to what we are doing. In case you haven’t noticed, curate and curation are two of the hottest, trendiest little words today. Suddenly, everyone is a curator, from boutique store owners to night club promoters to everyone and her sister who slaps a picture of a wonderfully decorated cake on their Pinterest site. Maria Popova, the “curator” behind the delightful website, Brain Pickings, is an absolute darling of the New York Times; their very favorite curator.

First, this clamoring for my profession to be hip bothers me because I fear it’s a reaction to something bigger. As John H. McWhorter, a linguist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute points out, “It’s an innocent form of self-inflation. You’re implying that there is some similarity between what you do and what someone with an advanced degree who works at a museum does.” (This quote is found in one of my favorite pieces on the subject by Alex Williams of the New York Times.) It’s true that there are archivists in the mix of librarians doing this curation stuff, and it’s true that they have advanced degrees in archival work, and it’s true that there is a great deal of overlap between archives and museums. But archivists are archivists, and curators are curators. They do actually have different educational and practice backgrounds.

Further, librarians in particular have a short fuse when it comes to non-professionals, i.e. those without the essential ALA-accredited MLS degree, calling themselves librarians. The battle cry in my profession of medical librarianship has been, for years now, a call to take back our profession. A hospital needs a medical librarian, we say, not simply someone who can oversee a room filled with journals and computers. We have a special role, a certain expertise. THIS is what we keep claiming.

So…  Why then are we being quick to take on the moniker of another profession? I think it’s a question worth asking or at least one to think about.

Secondly, I return to the fact that if we do really want to call ourselves curators, then we need to practice curation, and I do not believe that this is what we are doing at all. As mentioned previously, the word originated during medieval times when members of the clergy in Europe were entrusted with the “cure of souls.” (WikipediaLater, the Church of England used the term as a description for the ministers who took care of a parish. From this, then, we get the aspect of the museum curator, the one charged with the care of a collection. In this sense, librarians have always been curators, though interestingly, we chose to call ourselves a particular kind of curator, i.e. a librarian, entrusted with the care of a collection of books.

Taking care of a collection is very much part of the role of a curator, however it is not the only role. A curator is also assigned the task of selecting the materials to be in a collection. When we say that an art show has been curated, we mean that an individual(s) has looked at each piece of work submitted and made a judgement, based upon some theme or idea or standard, of whether or not it fits. This involves a particular relationship with the art, the artist, and the public and/or the institution that one serves.

In an interview for Art Journal, Helen Molesworth, the chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston says,

Don’t pause in front of weak work. Just keep moving, pause in front of strong work even if you don’t like it, even if you don’t understand it, even if it’s not to your taste, even if it’s not going to work in any of the rooms that you have to fill, stop in front of the strong stuff and walk by the weak stuff. And that is harsh. I don’t stop. Now, how I figure out what is weak and what is strong, that is a harder question. Because your question really goes to: What are the criteria, how do I ascribe value? … It’s a poetic and nice way of asking the hard question, which is, How do you end up making the choices to show what you show? (Art Journal)

Librarians, or more to the point, those librarians (and computer scientists and engineers and information technologists) calling themselves data curators, are not, by and large, doing much of anything along the lines of selection. If anything, subject specialist librarians who practice collection development, these individuals are doing the curatorial work described by Molesworth. They are the ones who look through a large pool of content and select, based upon certain criteria, what they deem important for their collections.

I have yet to hear anyone practicing data curation touch on this aspect. To the contrary, the conversation usually revolves around how to save and preserve everything, how to make everything accessible. This quest is, to me personally, ludicrous, not to mention fraught with countless problems in regards to infrastructure, workload, ethics, and more.

And so, a curator, in the purest sense, both selects and cares for a collection. You need to do both. And you need a certain level of education and a certain set of skills to do both. As long as librarians are content to pass along the task of selection to others, be it of data sets or the list of citations generated in a systematic review, we are not acting as curators. Our role is important. Collecting, storing, preserving, and making materials accessible is not something to snuff at, but it is not curation (if you insist upon using that word).

Let’s Ask the Expert

26 Mar

Normal Distribution

The research team has a new statistician; not a new analyst, but new statistician. If you look at it as a pecking order, the statistician oversees the analyst. Our former statistician retired recently, leaving the team to find a replacement. The University has a relatively new Quantitative Health Sciences Department and many of the services once procured through individual department statisticians are now going through QHS. Or at least this is how I think it’s going. These are things that I don’t necessarily need to know and as I have plenty of things occupying my “need to know” gray matter right now, I can just follow along here.

The significance of the new team member, to me, was that it generated the need for a meeting so that he could be brought up to speed on the project. This meeting happened this afternoon. I believe it was good for him (as well as the Chair of the Quantitative Methods Core, his boss, also in attendance). I know that it was good for me. I’ve now heard the project and its various aspects described on a number of occasions, and each time gain some new insight. Today, that insight was that I have a pretty good grasp on where the data for this study comes from, the different sources that generate it, how it’s stored, where it’s stored, who’s managing it, and so forth. I also had a pretty clear understanding of where the problem spots and/or issues with it are (mostly gone over, yet again, in today’s morning meeting).

I decided to pay close attention during the meeting on the questions that the statistician asked. I imagine that these are the kinds of questions that an informationist, embedded librarian, or anyone concerned with data management and planning would ask a research team. Here are some that I noted. If you’re doing an interview with a researcher about his/her data, are you asking these questions?

  • Is the data in one place or multiple places? 
  • Do the different sources merge together easily?
  • Are the variable names consistent across the sources?
  • Where is the merged data stored and how?
  • When and/or how often do you do data pulls from the sources?

Additionally, the statistician said that he wanted to be walked through the process. He wanted to generate a visual for himself of how everything works together. I found this request confirmation of much of what I’ve been reading and thinking about in terms of how we best see, understand, and communicate systems and processes. Visuals are important. I remember meeting with one of the chief programmers a few months back and how helpful it was when he pulled out a marker and drew us a picture on the whiteboard to explain all of this.*

*NOTE: If you’re interested in the art of explanation, check out The Art of Explanation by Common Craft founder, Lee Lefever. I’m pretty sure I mentioned this a few posts back, but in case you missed it… Also, Common Craft has made wonderful templates of their cut-out characters available for free to download and use in your own creations. Give it a try and see how well you do at explaining a concept or problem. Make a little video and share it with me.

So, if you’re keeping up with the process of the research study, the next step for the statistician is to collect data from the first cohort and start to play with it; see what it shows so far; see if it identifies any gaps of missing data and/or holes in the process that need to be addressed. It’ll be a couple of months, at least, before we hear back, but it was obvious that the team was excited about this move.

A few questions that I’m left with, following today, are:

  • What’s the difference between an analyst and a statistician?
  • What is my role, if any, in this aspect of the study?

One last interesting aside – When we went around the table to introduce ourselves and I said, “I’m from the library, serving as the informationist,” Dr. Barton, the Director of the Quantitative Methods Core said, “Oh, good.” I’m the only one who got an “Oh, good.” I’ve no idea what he meant by it, but I like to see it as a positive sign that my library is engaged in this kind of work. Regardless, it was a nice gesture.

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