Tag Archives: skills

Fitting the Bill

2 Aug
Sweet, old Zeb loved to listen to the band.

Sweet, old Zeb loved to listen to the band.

This was a pretty rotten week. It started off fantastically as I met a bunch of my favorite colleagues for fun and games (aka brunch) in Boston, saw Alison Krauss give a freebie concert at Copley Square, and dusted off my old seminary skills to deliver a summer sermon at my church. And that was all on Sunday. But driving home from the big city, I began to have the worst toothache. I stopped at the rest area on the Mass Pike to take some extra-strength something or other, and by Monday, the throbbing reached that horrible place that it seems only toothaches and earaches can ever reach. Tuesday morning found me in my dentist’s chair for 3 hours undergoing an emergency root canal. The rest of the day and the better part of Wednesday was spent lying on the couch, praying that the penicillin would start working soon.

It did. Thankfully. Just in time to receive a phone call from my dad’s wife telling me that my dad was back in the hospital. He lives in San Antonio, Texas. I live in Massachusetts. As you might imagine, this doesn’t make for smooth and/or easy communication about all that’s going on for him.

And then my mother-in-law decided that it’s time for her to move to another state. This month. That took my spouse away for a couple of days this week and likely more in the weeks ahead.

By the time I went to the hospital cafeteria yesterday morning, simply looking for some nice, soft, scrambled eggs to eat, only to find that they’d pulled all of the breakfast foods and were setting up lunch (and it wasn’t even 10:30 in the morning)… well, I admit that I almost cried right there in the hallway. It seemed like just one too many things for the week’s pile-on.

And today marks the one-year anniversary of saying goodbye to our sweet, old dog, Zebediah. He was special in so many ways. We miss him a lot, still.

HOWEVER, not to be lost in this story of the sad and pitiful week is the fact that on Monday, after months of waiting and searching and hoping and juggling, we FINALLY filled my former position of Head of Research and Scholarly Communication Services at my library. Rebecca Reznik-Zellen joins us, bringing our staff up to the full-staff number of 3! It might not sound like much, but as the Schoolhouse Rock classic reminds us, “Three is a Magic Number.”

Rebecca comes to us from the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she was the Digital Strategies Coordinator for the W.E.B. DuBois Library. I’ve been lucky to call Rebecca a colleague for the past few years and feel even luckier now to have her as a co-worker. I once wrote a letter of recommendation for her and in it I summed up my feelings for her work abilities by saying, “If I was ever in a position to build a library staff, Rebecca would be the very first person that I would hire.” As you might imagine, I was pretty happy when she first talked to me about the possibility of applying for the position, and even more delighted when she applied and the search committee decided to hire her (let it be known that I was not part of that committee).

Of course, when someone is hired to take your former position – the one that you’ve been managing, along with your new role, for months on end – you naturally assume that it means at least part of your current workload will finally ease. Something in the back of my mind knew that this wasn’t likely the case with Rebecca’s hire, though. I’ve worked for my library director too long to know that while the job title remains the same, the person filling that role brings with him/her a set of skills that may well be utilized in a completely different way. Rebecca has a skill set much different from mine (hence the reason I’d hire her to be on my Fantasy Library Team) and thus the things that I did well when I was the Head of Research and Scholarly Communications aren’t necessarily the things she’ll do well.

Similarly, the department is at a very different place today than it was when I assumed that role. At that time, it was a brand new role and the kind of services that we needed to develop were based a lot upon establishing relationships, making contacts, and raising awareness of the things that the Library could provide while utilizing our current resources (like our institutional repository, my expertise in the issues surrounding the NIH Public Access Mandate, our push towards open access, etc.). Today, the Library has very solid relationships with many research departments on campus, the kind of relationships that have allowed me to move into the informationist and embedded librarian role that I’m so enjoying. We still have work to do in the promotion of our now-traditional services to this population, but it’s also time to begin boosting up the new areas and roles that we’ve hoped to do for awhile, namely, data services.

Enter Rebecca and her strengths in strategic planning, the issues around data, and the library/librarian roles here, and we have a terrific opportunity for expansion. But yes… expansion means just that, i.e. more work to do, not less. I pretty much have to accept that I’m not passing off my old job to someone else. That’s not how things work today in anyone’s work world. And complaining about it is nothing much more than a big waste of time and energy. Instead, what we need to do is find the ways to share roles, morph needs, kill two birds with one stone, so to speak (I love birds and would never do such a thing). That’s the challenge ahead.

In his book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, Keith Sawyer calls this part of “‘problem finding’, creative style.” (p. 25) He says that too often we get stuck asking the wrong questions and that the very first skill to master in developing greater, everyday creativity is to practice finding the right questions. In terms of juggling and managing my workload, both old and new things, the question of “How can I do all of this?” is likely not the right question. Maybe there’s a better solution in asking, “Do I have skills that I’m not taking advantage of?” or “Can I combine x with y when I’m teaching different topics?” or “Can I reach a larger group of people at one time?” or “Can these tasks be broken up into more manageable (i.e. share-able) pieces?” or likely dozens more. I don’t know, but I do know that there is plenty of work to be done and a seemingly limitless list of opportunities that we could take on.* And personally, I find this a much more advantageous position to be in than the one where you have not enough to do and can easily be dismissed.

I also read an interesting editorial last night written by Janice LaChance, the CEO of the Special Libraries Association, in the latest issue of their magazine, Information Outlook. Entitled, “The Promise of Skills and Expertise,” LaChance notes that when it comes to the roles that librarians and information professionals assume, there is much to be said for distinguishing between one’s education and one’s expertise, as well as one’s job title and job role.

Even though the market for jobs is sluggish, the market for expertise is thriving, and there will always be positions for people who know how to identify, use, disseminate, and analyze good information. By learning to highlight and use your expertise rather than depend solely on a job title, you can open doors to roles you may never have considered. (Information Outlook, Vol. 17, No. 4, July/August 2013, p. 2)

I’m seeing this first-hand in my current work. Rebecca was hired to fill the same job title that I held, but the role is quite different. Similarly, my title of informationist or an embedded librarian or a research librarian really is not much more than something to put on my business card or a way to introduce myself to a group. What matters more is what I bring to the role and how well that I can explain this to the people that I wish to form partnerships with.

Case in point, last week I went to a department to teach about issues related to the NIH’s Public Access Mandate. One of the PIs of the group walked in with a printout of the latest RFP from the National Library of Medicine for the next round of informationist grants. “I’ve seen this word, informationist, twice in one week now,” he said to me, indicating that he’d come across both that RFP and my signature line in an email within a few days. “What exactly do you do as an informationist?” he asked, and following the class, we had an introductory discussion about what I’ve been doing the past months in my new role, as well as some ideas he has about how he could use a similar person. Is it a collaboration in the making? I sure hope so, because it’s an awfully interesting project. But more importantly for this post, it’s a great example of how the opportunities to do new things and take on new tasks come to us all of the time. They are rarely limited to any particular job title or job description. And the expansion isn’t going to stop anytime soon.

I’m really happy to have a new co-worker on this adventure and look forward to the questions we’ll come up with together. The everyday work-a-day will continue to be full and yes, sometimes a little frustrating in that I can’t get everything done that I’d like to do, but in all honesty, the diversity of the role is why I became a librarian in the first place. Who wants to do the same old thing over and over and over again?

I’m on vacation next week. I may post a muse that emerges from my relaxation time, or I may just relax. We’ll see! :)

*In that same issue of Information Outlook, there is a thought-provoking (and inspiring, to me) article by Colleen Shannon, manager of technical intelligence at the Hershey Company in Hershey, PA, called “Stop Trying to Serve Everyone.” The story she tells of how she led her group to match its goals with specific corporate initiatives, thus becoming its own functional group as opposed to a support unit is pretty interesting stuff, and a pretty big shift in some of the basic principles of how libraries operate. It also happens to be a thinking that I fully support when it comes to providing embedded librarian and/or informationist services. In other words, I’m perfectly content providing in-depth expertise to a few, rather than a minimal level of service to many. But yes, such work has limitations, I agree.

So DO You Want to be a Data Scientist?

28 Mar

Last week, a colleague that I follow on Twitter retweeted a post from the blog, NatureJobs, titled , So you want to be a data scientist by Michael Koploy of SoftwareAdvice.com. The colleague who originally brought the piece to my attention, Kristi Holmes, PhD, is a bioinformaticist at Becker Medical Library at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine. She’s also an all-around good egg and one of my absolute favorite colleagues in the field, but that’s beside the point. I would have read the piece regardless of who tweeted it to my attention. However, because it came from Kristi, we then engaged in a mini tweetchat that we’ve had before, i.e. Where and what is the intersection between data scientists and librarians, if there even is one?

One of the interesting things about this discussion, to me, is that Kristi is a scientist who happens to work in a library, while I am a librarian, trying to work in the arena of scientists. And from our different perspectives, she is the one who is routinely much more optimistic about librarians getting into the area of data than I. There’s probably a thing or two you can decipher from this, but that’s for another time.

Another thing that happened after I retweeted and commented on the post was that I got an email from Brittany Richards at Software Advice thanking me for the tweet and additionally, asking if I’d do a blog post of their article here on the Librarian Hats blog. Specifically, Brittany wrote, “You mentioned library science and I was interested to see your thoughts on how the two are related to each other.”

Now if you’ve read this blog for any time, you know my answer was an enthusiastic, “SURE!” So here goes – a recap of that article and some summarizing of conversations I’ve had with Kristi and other scientists on the topic:

scienceI once saw/heard a librarian give a presentation where he identified himself as a data scientist. I called him on it. I am a librarian with a graduate degree in library & information science. I also have a graduate degree in an applied biological science (exercise physiology). Given that background, I feel pretty comfortable stating that while the two share the word, there is a world of difference between the science that librarians do and that which takes place in laboratories, clinics, the field, etc. As I’ve stated in this blog before, my background in exercise physiology is what I feel gives me the extra tools that I need to be effective as an informationist. That’s the science background that is recognized in the sciences.

I hope you don’t hear me dissing my library degree, education, or career. I’m not at all. They are just different and when I read articles like Koploy’s, as well as many books on data, specifically library and librarians’ roles in working with data, I cannot help but keep this thought in mind. It’s what comes to my mind. Every time.

In his post, Koploy recalls the description of a data scientist that he got from Bruno Aziza, a big name in Big Data. Aziza called a data scientist a “business analyst-plus.” He highlights mathematics, statistics, and business strategy as their core skills. Koploy himself adds, “While programming and statistical expertise is the foundation for any data scientist, a strong background in business and strategy can help jettison a younger scientist’s career to the next level.” Further, he notes that successful data scientists are drawn from the fields of biostatistics, econometrics, engineering, computer science, and the like. I’ve read the article several times. Library or information science is not on the list.

Again, this isn’t a slight against my field, but rather an observation that there are different skill sets required for different jobs and the job of a data scientist is not the job of a librarian. And vice versa.

So the question then becomes, how much does a librarian – or an informationist – need to learn to become a data scientist? I say, “A lot.” However, that “a lot” comes with the assumption that one isn’t entering data science from one of those previously mentioned fields. If this is the case, then of course, that individual is well prepared. You’ll note though, that even with the background, Koploy points out that data science is (1) fast-growing, (2) extremely competitive, and (3) new. Even the most seasoned statistician needs to learn some new skills and/or subjects to keep up.

The optimistic among us – those who believe the cross-over between information and data science is broad – focus upon those characteristics that are, in fact, mentioned by experts in the data science field as ones that separate the exceptional data scientist from the average; inquisitiveness, the ability to spot trends, and the tendency (skill) to ask the right questions. It’s the latter where librarians, informationists, and information scientists both have experience and often excel. We know how to ask the right questions that get to the heart of information problems, e.g. How does the business work? How does it collect data? How will it use the data? (per Krishna Gopinathan, Global Analytics Holdings)

So, do you want to be a data scientist? If you’re a librarian or an informationist, depending upon your background, you may or may not have a little or a lot of work to do to get ready to take on the role. If you don’t have the background, I see two possibilities:

  • Get it (hit the books!)
  • Find the right partner(s) where your skills can be paired to produce a good data science team

We choose careers for a lot of different reasons, but I like to believe that in the best case scenario, we choose something that we’re both interested in and good at. Remember those aptitude tests you took in the guidance counselor’s office in high school? They were (and still are) meant to measure something. They measure what we like and what we have an aptitude for. They measure what career would fit us best. It means something to be a librarian. It also means something to be a scientist. I believe that it’a a sign of the times, and a bit of a challenging time at that, that careers and skills and tasks that once sat neatly within cubicles and labs and computer workstations are now all mixed up together. This melting pot of vocations is difficult to navigate. On the one hand, it opens a wealth of new opportunities. On the other, though, it means for everyone working with information and/or data, we will never enjoy sitting back and doing the same old same old for very long.

If you’re interested, I also encourage you to read the original piece that Michael Koploy wrote, along with some of the links he suggests for further reading. In particular, I really enjoyed Hilary Mason’s blog. Good stuff there. I also happened to notice, just this morning, that Coursera’s free Introduction to Data Science class that’s listed is starting up in the not too distant future. If it piques your interest, give it a go. You might well find that you have a hidden talent that will take you far in this new area.

Which brings me full-circle to the question I began with, i.e. Is this new area in the library? Well, quite obviously there are individuals like Kristi, bioinformaticists and data scientists who find their home in libraries*. There are also librarians or informationists with training in data science who find their homes outside of the library. And then there are librarians. And then there are data scientists. In other words, there’s a big mix of us. If you’re comfortable in the mix and you’re up to the task of getting and/or honing new skills, you’ll likely do really well wherever you are.

The times they are a changin’, sings Mr. Dylan, and we look to change with them. At the same time, though, we need to be realistic. We need to see clearly what we know, what we do well, what we like, and more. We need changes in graduate education across the board to address these issues, and likewise those of us working need to accept that we’ll be learning for a lifetime. These are the times we live in. You can’t just call yourself something different. You need to do something different. Or do things differently. Likely all of the above.

special agents rockin

Rockin’ out with my pals, The Special Agents, at Houghton Elementary School. Support art, music, and physical education in your public schools, people! You could get a band out of it.

Now I’m off to play drums with a friend’s band, dressed up like the Cat in the Hat. You’ve got to have a really big tool box o’ skills, friends. Really big!

* And then there’s the matter of money. If you have the chops to get a job as a data scientist, are you willing to work for about half of what you could make in business or industry than you will in a library? It’s a question that comes up in our professional discussions often. If you want to have at it in the comments section to this post, go for it!

What is it again that you do?

7 Mar

Question-MarkHave you ever noticed how if you’re thinking of something in particular, it begins appearing more often in your life? It happens all the time. If you’re thinking of some old song, it pops-up on the radio. If you’re thinking of a person you haven’t heard from in awhile, you get an email or a letter from them. And if you’ve been thinking about something related to your work – some general idea or a belief about how things go – all of the sudden, everyone is thinking of that idea; everyone believes this (or is actively arguing against it!).

One thing that I’ve noticed the profession of librarianship talk about and/or think about and/or explore over the past decade that I’ve been a librarian is our identity. My role now, as an informationist, is a direct example of this exploration. Informationists are another kind of librarian – another way that we’re doing our job. We try on different names a lot. It’s one strategy for trying to sell our skills and our value to others, oftentimes new groups and/or patrons. As such, we spend a lot of time explaining what we do.

I was in a meeting just this morning where I was asked directly, “So what is it that you’re doing, specifically, for the CER group?” I was asked a very similar question on Tuesday, while giving my lecture to the graduate class on Team Science. It also happened in a meeting last Thursday. It happened in a conversation I was having with a church member the other night. It happens at the supper table on a fairly regular basis. “What is it that you do again?”

I used to think that this was simply a side effect of being a librarian. It’s a profession with such a strong stereotype that whenever I’d share something about my day with someone, s/he would be taken a little aback. When I say, “I couldn’t check out a book to you if I had to,” people are aghast. I say that I do a lot of information and knowledge management, but that jargon (as I was reminded this morning) means little of nothing to most people. I’ve come to see, in my line of work, that what people really want to know is the answer to the question, “What do you do and how will it help me?”

But what I’ve also come to see in my new line of work that takes me out of the library and into the worlds of my patrons, is that my patrons also struggle a lot with answering that same question. Just the other day, I heard a researcher say, “Nobody knows what the hell I do!” And inside, I shouted to myself, “WE’RE NOT ALONE!!”

And it’s true. Do you really know – do your really understand – what your friends, family members, colleagues, or patrons do? As an aside, I always wondered what Ward Cleaver and Steven Douglas did when they went off to the office. My parents were teachers, so I knew what they did, but what the heck did people do in offices all day? I had no idea. Similarly, I can stand on the new sidewalk and look up at the new research building on my campus and wonder just what’s going on in those labs.

As an informationist and/or embedded librarian, one of the skills I’m learning to master is interviewing. Part of a good interview involves clearly explaining to the researchers what I do. This involves practice. I need to think about it (a lot), talk about it with others, make sure that I’m making sense to people both in and outside of my profession. A good interview also involves my being flexible. I need to turn the tables on the researchers and ask them, “What do YOU do?,” and then, as I listen to their answers, I need to be able to think critically and creatively about when and where and how I can insert my skills and expertise into their work. I need to really be able to answer the question, “Where do I fit here?” I’m getting better with this as I do it more, as I’m gaining practice on and off the field.

But the real nugget of new-found knowledge that I want to share here today is this… we’re not alone. The people that we’re trying to help, struggle as much as we do in explaining what they do to others. We can make that easier for them in the interview. I asked a cardiologist last week, “What is that?” while pointing to these two medical devices that he had framed on his wall, looking liked crossed sabers. And in explaining what they were, I learned a lot about what he does. Changing the tone of the conversation, making it more personable and comfortable and often times less formal, helps both parties involved understand one another better. I wrote a couple of  posts back about empathy. That’s what this is – putting one’s self maybe not so much in another’s shoes, but in the same room and on the same level. Being part of the team.

It’s been a big week out of the library. Teaching the Team Science class went really well. I found a couple of other good opportunities for collaboration. I’m exploring another possible grant-funded part on a research team that looks really promising. And by golly, yesterday I spent the last hour of my day figuring out the H-index for an author based upon a long list of his citations he sent me, i.e. some good old fashioned librarian work! It’s still winter and we’re wearing a bunch of hats!

 

Failure to Communicate

19 Sep

com-mu-ni-ca-tion – (noun) a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior (Merriam-Webster online)

in-for-ma-tion – (noun) the communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence (Merriam-Webster online)

over-load – (verb) fill to excess so that function is impaired (thefreedictionary.com) or (noun) a heavy metal rock band from Bollnas, Sweden

After yesterday’s meetings, these are the words that filled the notebook where I jot down ideas for this blog. As an informationist, I’m called upon to bring research support and knowledge management services to the research team. I’m asked to develop data dictionaries, to design a better system to request data, and to assist with systematic reviews. In all of the descriptions and definitions of an informationist, these type things fall under “knowledge management.” Along with “informationist,” KM is a trending, i.e. “hot” topic in medical libraries today. These are the new roles for librarians in clinical, academic, and research settings.

I couldn’t help but think, though, that the one thing missing in all of our talk about information is communication and so I refreshed my memory this morning by looking up each word. Since the definition of information contains communication, perhaps we can assume that it is implied. Information is what we communicate, thus they go hand-in-hand. Still, I want to think about them separately here, for I think that there are elements of good communication that I can hone to make myself a better informationist, lest we all end up here…


There are thousands of books and articles and motivational speaker websites devoted to explaining what makes a person an effective communicator. For the purposes of this post, I chose some points from a statement on doctor-patient communication that appeared in the British Medical Journal way back in 1991 (Simpson et al., Doctor-patient communication: the Toronto consensus statement, BMJ. 1991 November 30; 303(6814): 1385–1387). From this Statement I learn that active listening, empathy, and the ability to explain things clearly are all key elements of effective communication (and patient satisfaction).

So how, if in any way, might these translate into the work I’m doing trying to manage information, i.e., to facilitate better communication?

Much of these first weeks on the job are taken up with sitting in on meetings so that I can observe, and thus ultimately understand, not only the research project, but also the process(es) that are a part of it. In other words, I need to be listening – actively listening – to who and what and how the information is being shared. I need to ask questions based upon what I hear. I need to reiterate points, to ask, “Have I got that right?”

I also need to empathize with the situation. This is easy for me. I’m a fairly empathetic person by nature, but more, it’s not much of a stretch for any of us to empathize with the overwhelming sense of being crushed by a mound of information. Information overload. Communication overload. We are constantly in a state of being swamped by stuff – data, words, ideas, news, all the noise, noise, NOISE from those Kardashians down in Whoville. As I stated in last week’s post, it’s a miracle we understand anything we say to one another. It’s a miracle we can hear it amidst all of the noise. And so the skill of empathetic active listening becomes one not limited to clinicians, but to informationists, too. I need to become good at listening through the buggering noise to find the important pieces of information that need to be conveyed clearly.

And finally, I need to become skilled in explaining things. Why have I chosen these particular labels or vocabulary? Why organize things this way instead of that way? Why use this tool rather than that one? I need to be able to clearly convey my own message of what I am doing and why I’m doing it, otherwise my value to the team is severely undermined. We librarians complain a lot that people don’t know what we can and/or do do in our work. Maybe part of that reality needs to land on our own collective shoulders. Maybe we haven’t done the best job up until now communicating our skills. Not that it’s a Catch-22, but we really do need to gain communication skills so that we can communicate our librarian or informationist or knowledge management (you name it… and might the many names be part of the problem?) skills.

Lastly, my favorite line in this brief article is:

Clinical communication skills do not reliably improve from mere experience.

That’s the take-away message for me today. Clinical communication skills, librarian communication skills, informationist communication skills, just communication skills… these don’t merely come to us from experience. Like too many things in our profession, I fear, we believe we’ll gain our skills in communication simply by communicating over and over and over again. But like one of my mandolin teachers once said, “Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” We need to learn the skills of good communication and then use them over and over. There’s a definite need we can fill here.

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