Archive | September, 2012

Can Anyone REALLY be President?

25 Sep

My new role as an informationist, an upcoming panel talk I’m giving on emerging roles for librarians, some things that I heard while listening online to Purdue University’s Data Curation Profiles Symposium yesterday, and any number of articles, discussions and/or listserv postings I encounter regularly in my profession leave me thinking a great deal about what it takes (or is going to take) to be successful (read, “relevant”) as a librarian in the future. Remember back when you were in elementary school and you took those aptitude tests that were supposed to help you figure out what might be a good profession for you? I can’t remember what mine told me. I do remember that my brother’s results told him that he’d be a good forest ranger. He was really happy with it, too, but his guidance counselor advised that he was too smart for that. Know what he does today with his two degrees from the University of Virginia? He lives out in the boondocks on a farm. Gentleman farmer or well-educated forest ranger, take your pick.

My point in this is that we all have certain traits and certain characteristics. We also have certain areas of interest and certain aptitudes for certain things. For a long time, perhaps since the beginning of the librarian profession, a certain type of person has been drawn to the field. This is not stereotyping, this is fact. Librarians, in general, are not the most extroverted and outgoing people. Sure, some of us are, but in truth, if you survey all of the librarians in the world, you’re gonna find that the overwhelming majority are fairly reserved. We’re also fairly organized. We like rules and order. We like helping people, supporting the work of others, and laying a foundation, often unseen and/or seamless, that allows people of all walks of life to find the information that they need to do whatever it is that they need or want to do in life. It is a most honorable profession and I count myself truly fortunate to call it my own.

More and more, though, librarians face the uncertainty of a future that may or may not need them anymore. You can argue this statement, and truth be told I’d be arguing from my heart that it’s absurd – that in an information age, what the world needs more than anything are librarians (and libraries). But if I pause and argue with my head instead, I can see how and why many claim that we are indeed a dying profession; that it’s only a matter of time before we’re extinct.

What I hear a lot, read a lot, and think a lot about is why this might be. More, I think about what changes do we need to undergo, as a profession, to remake ourselves into one that is without question, relevant today. Is it simply changing our name? If I am an informationist, if I practice knowledge management, if I do the work of a librarian, yet in a different context, am I keeping librarianship – the profession – alive? If a librarian falls in the research lab, does anybody hear?

More related to my current role (and way less of a philosophical quandary… maybe) is the question of what it’s going to take for me to be successful as an informationist. What skills do I need? What traits do I have that work well here? This was the discussion toward the end of yesterday’s symposium and the one I found of most interest. People were asking, “What kind of students do library schools need to be recruiting now?” They were saying things like, “Librarians are not risk-takers. They do not have entrepreneurial spirits. They aren’t natural salespeople.”

And they’re right. By and large, we are not.

While President Obama (or your parents) might tell you that you can grow up to be anything, the truth of the matter is that really … REALLY … only one in a gazillion men (it’s like one in a quadracentenialgazillion women) will ever grow up to be the President. Heck, being President isn’t even a profession. It’s a title. Like informationist.

So where am I going with all of this? As I listen and read and think about the qualities and skills of an informationist, I believe I have them. I believe it’s a pretty good fit. I have a background in research and health sciences (skills). I have experience in organizing information, i.e. being a librarian (skills). But I think it may well be the qualities that I possess, innately and/or environmentally-formed, that are going to bear out as the most significant in my goal to be a good informationist. I am creative, pretty self-confident, and a fairly good communicator. I’m good at being a team player. I’m comfortable speaking my mind in teams, sharing what I know and what I think.

I hope readers don’t take this assessment as bragging, because honestly, I laugh at myself way too much and take myself seriously way too little to really be a braggart. These are just characteristics of me AND of others that I see moving into these less traditional librarian roles. For some of us, the traditional librarian role was maybe one that never fit all that well, but these new opportunities are perfect.

Lots of people go into politics. Not all of them are made to be President. I’m hardly comparing being an informationist or an embedded librarian or a data curation specialist or any other of these emerging roles in our profession, to being President (although I COULD tell you how I’d run the world if I were in charge). I only use it as an example to demonstrate that in every profession there are positions that require a little something different in order to be successful.

As I said earlier, being President is not a profession. The President is just a particular kind of politician with a particular set of skills and qualities. I think that this is what I’m learning so far about being an informationist. I also think it’s a really important thing to pay attention to in terms of helping the profession of librarianship move into the future. We need to pay attention to these other skills and qualities and we need to be actively recruiting people who possess them into our profession. We don’t do this at the expense of others who are made to be wonderful librarians in any of the other, perhaps more traditional, roles. But we need to realize that we need some different people, too.

And finally (seeds for future posts), we need to believe that some qualities CAN actually be taught – in library school, continuing education courses, and professional development opportunities. Creativity is not an inherent trait. We aren’t all going to be able to play the mandolin like Chris Thile, regardless of the number of CE credits we earn in mando lessons. But that’s not to say that there do not exist lessons and exercises that we can practice, just like with the mandolin, that will make us more creative. We can become better communicators. We can practice public speaking. We can learn about sales. Some may take to these better than others and for them we have new roles. (Others, i.e. all of us and our profession as a whole, will benefit from a little more of them, overall.)

Personally, I don’t want to enter the profession of informationist-ism. I like being a librarian. That’s the profession I’m a part of. It’s also the one that I hope to help preserve and enhance, by opening its doors to new roles and the people who will best fit them. I think I’m on my way.

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 ( 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.

The Missing Variable

12 Sep

My second full day of on-the-job informationist-ing leaves me reflecting upon two things:

  1. Language is one big, messy, pot of mess and,
  2. Everything I needed to know about data I learned in statistics.

Let’s look at these a little closer. Those who also know me on Facebook can tell you that my status update yesterday afternoon read, “When you really stop and think about communication, you realize that it’s a MIRACLE that we understand one another even half the time.” I can’t share the conversation verbatim, but it’s close enough to say that part of the process evaluation meeting yesterday morning went something like:

So X represents those eligible. Okay. Now Y should be the number of eligible less those eligible for study. And then Z, those eligible and approved, represents a subgroup that should add up to those eligible for the intervention plus those approved, less X. Aha! So now I see that our final N is correct!

Confused? How could you not be? At first I thought it was only me, being new to the process and all, but I admit that I felt a lot better when I noticed others around the table also had that crinkly look on their foreheads. When Dr. Costanza asked, “Would you like me to draw that out for you?” I said with a little too much enthusiasm, “YES, PLEASE!”

The good thing about working with this group is that everyone is in agreement that the biggest obstacle in their study right now is related to communication. In fact, it’s THE reason they were so excited to have me be on their team. I shared last week about the inherent complexities of multiple data sources, many people on the team, several sites/locations involved, tens of thousands of subjects, etc. Trouble communicating between and within all of these is expected. So where do we begin in fixing the problem?


Specifically, definitions of words.

And a mandate to quit using the same word to describe multiple things.

Controlled vocabulary is a librarian’s forte. We cringe when we hear it, but Dewey Decimal did indeed go a long way in helping us make our mark as a profession. Organizing, indexing, cataloging… these things work when we create and/or implement some rules that everyone can follow. God knows I hate the Barnes and Noble method of “cataloging.” You need more than “Philosophy” and “Business” and an alphabet, for heaven’s sake. What my research team wants – and desperately needs – is a data dictionary. They need a way to know what “eligible” means and, if there are multiple levels of eligibility, then we need to give each of these a different name and a definition. Either that, or I’m going to re-introduce cave drawings. I think they might work better.

So, tasked with creating said data dictionary, I began (last week and most of yesterday) identifying and collecting any existing code books and/or dictionaries. Once I have them all, I can then merge them together, look for commonalities, create unique identifiers where needed, clear up the fuzzy language, and then, ultimately, implement the use of the dictionary in future communications. Goal: When someone fills out a data request form for a specific set of data elements, the analysts will know just what the researcher wants.

Which brings me to Reflection #2: Everything I needed to know about data, I learned in statistics. While one might think that the foundation for building a data dictionary, i.e. a code book, is learned in information science, my experience is different. I learned about how to create a code book when I learned about how to do statistics. Before you can collect the first bit of data, you have to have a code book in place, defining each element and/or variable that you’re collecting. You need to be clear that this field in this form is answering this question and in this way. The “this” is really important. I learned a lot about how to organize information in library school, but I learned about collecting information in … statistics.

And I didn’t take statistics in library school.

I admit that I entered into my informationist role with a bias. I’m convinced that library schools need – must – start requiring those students who wish to become academic or research librarians of any sort to do original research. Along with research methods, statistics is the foundation for working with data. We’re simply ill-prepared to embed ourselves into a research team and work with data effectively, to help solve issues related to data, if we don’t know much about it. Yes, you can do it otherwise, but I fear the learning-curve is awfully steep and given all of the other stressors that come simply from trying to get everything done at work nowadays, the fewer hills you have to climb, the better.

Librarians have a head start in that we understand information, but I worry that we too often use the words “data” and “information” interchangeably. That’s a mistake. They have different definitions. They mean different things. And they require different skills when dealing with them.

You could look it up.

Thinking with Pictures

8 Sep

I wrote the other day that I drew a picture to help me figure out the methodology of the study and where the different sources of data fit in. Drawing pictures helps me a lot. And I’m not alone. In fact, if you do the slightest bit of reading into the literature on how we think and perceive and remember, you’ll quickly find that our brains are arranged to take in information visually almost 3 times more than our other 4 senses combined. We are visual thinkers. Sadly, though, we live in a society based much more on verbal and written communication. That might explain why we’re so confused, but I’ll resist the urge to digress onto that thought.

I’m fascinated with the topics of visual communication and visual literacy and visual note taking. I’m also really lucky to be married to someone who teaches in this field (as a subset of graphic design) and so I’m privy to a lot of great books and journals and magazines. Between Lynn’s teaching and my interest, we’ve developed quite the library.

I’ve also been lucky in that I was recently asked to speak on a panel at the upcoming “Emerging Roles Symposium” being hosted by the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Medical Library Association. During the panel, I’ll be talking about my role supporting eScience. There are several panels and a whole bunch of great speakers and topics. It’s going to be a terrific program and I couldn’t be more pleased to take part.

The invitation also came with another to teach a continuing education class. If you’re flying all the way across the country for a meeting, you might as well make the most of it. Of course, I said, “Sure!” Note that I said “Sure!” before ever agreeing on what I’d teach. In the back of my mind though, for a long while, had been the thought to develop a class around my interest and knowledge of visual communication, and so I proposed this to the CE Committee. The result –  Bullet Point 1, Bullet Point 2, Bullet Point 3… the Audience Flees: Visual Communication Skills for Effective Teaching and Presentations – a class that, up until I got distracted by writing this blog post, I was working on this morning.

I thought I’d merge my class prep into this post by sharing the bibliography that I’m putting together. These are just some of the books that I’m using, but it’s a great collection to get you started on getting to know this topic. When I think about the skill set needed to be an embedded librarian, I think that two of the most important skills one must have for success are creativity and  problem solving (critical thinking, analytical thought, however you might describe it). Or better put, maybe the one skill needed most by an embedded librarian is creative problem solving and one of the best ways to hone our creative problem solving skills is to practice visual thinking. So without further ado, here’s a small library to get you going (presented visually, of course):

First Day of School

5 Sep

September 4, 2012

This isn’t my first day meeting with the team. We met to collaborate on the grant proposal, of course, and I’ve met with several team members here and there over the past month, but today marked the official beginning of my time on the project. You can probably guess what it started with… as with most anything at work, it started with a meeting. Two of them, in fact.

First, was the monthly meeting where many of the people involved (there are approximately 25 people across 4-5 campuses and/or institutions working on this study!) either attend in person or call in. It’s an update call, a time to document the progress on everything from the number of participants recruited and/or interviewed, to the number of glitches in the various computer programs fixed.

Mostly, it is a time for Process Evaluation. This is an important term, I quickly learn. A large research study is continually evaluated to insure that each step, each part, is producing the data required to ultimately answer the research question. In this case, the National Cancer Institute is giving the researchers a substantial amount of money over several years to investigate what type of intervention works best and is the most cost-effective to insure that women get mammograms, a proven measure in the early discovery and treatment of breast cancer. Without the correct data, the question will go unanswered – or worse, answered incorrectly.

For me, the interesting aspect of the emphasis on process evaluation is that it is the reason the PIs were most excited about adding an informationist to their team. With multiple people and multiple sources of data involved in the study, communication – or better put, troubles with it – are a big concern. My first, and perhaps primary, role on the team is to discover, create and implement the tools necessary to decrease these miscommunications. People are using different terms to describe the same thing. Variables lack clear definitions. We need some controlled vocabulary. Now there’s a good librarian word! And with it, I can see my value pretty quickly.

Meeting #2 involves talking about this role more specifically. My first task is spelled out, “Create for us a Data Dictionary.” Fortunately, I have about 10 months to do this, but by next week, I’m to present my ideas on how I’m going to do this. What am I going to create? What software might I need? What will work best?

I spend the rest of my day thinking about this. I read the grant proposal again. I read a published paper on the study. I sketch out a picture of the methodology, trying to figure out when and where each data source comes into play. It’s no easy task. We have 4-6 (depending on who’s describing it to me) sources of data; 4-6 codebooks; countless variables in total. And of course, they are interconnected in countless ways.

In the end, I determine that I need to make something interactive, something that will allow the users to see not only the definitions of the variables, but also where and how they relate to others. A static document won’t do. I wish I had the programming chops to use ThinkMap (the software behind the Visual Thesaurus), but lacking that, I take time reviewing some other mind mapping and/or visualizing tools. I download a free trial of MindJet and play around with it for awhile. This might work, but I’m not ready to recommend it yet. There are other things out there, I know. I need to look at them, too.

Bottom line: This first day of class was WAY more than a “just hand out the syllabus and leave” day. I think I deserve a new pencil!