Archive | June, 2013

Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda

25 Jun

I’ve been in Cambridge the past couple of days; two very long days at a Software Carpentry Boot Camp sponsored by Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) of Boston. It was an intense time of learning, more akin to climbing the Mount Everest of learning curves than a classroom experience. Fortunately, the instructors divided the attendees (120 of us in all) into three groups based upon experience. I’m a novice in the realm of programming. I know my way around web design and its associated HTML, XML, and CSS, but when it comes to using “the shell” (as I’ve learned the terminal window is called), I’m a newbie.

Spending time writing out code to add numbers only makes me think, “Isn’t this why Thomas Edison invented the calculator?” Somebody already did this work for me. Still, I also once took an auto mechanics class so that I could learn how my car runs. I changed the oil a couple of times, then thought that there’s a reason Jiffy Lube exists, and let it go at that. There’s obviously a part of me that’s intrigued by how things work. There’s a part of me that definitely likes knowing that if I really wanted to, I could take the reigns (busted timing belts and erased hard drives aside).

It was that part of me that led me to sign up for the camp. In my work on research teams, I hear many of the same issues expressed when it comes to data management, information management, work flow and communication. I keep thinking to myself that surely there HAS to be a way to solve some of these problems, yet when I go hunting for the answer, I too often find myself limited by my abilities to work with open source programs that just might do the trick. My rationale for the self-inflicted alpine quest is that if I can learn enough to at least talk intelligently to someone who knows more about programming, then I’m better off than I was on Sunday.

And after the sprint to the top of the past two days, I’m happy to report that I’m at least there. Knowing more than I did on Sunday, that is.

Learning Curve

I learned many things that are – fortunately for you, my reader – available online at the Software Carpentry website. Beyond the classroom instruction, they offer many self-paced learning modules, links to more information, suggestions on groups to join and/or where to find support. This is a marathon (to switch sporting event metaphors) that we’re on. Those books might claim that they can teach me Python in a day, but … well, we’ve obviously never met, me and the authors of said books.

But I did learn a good bit about the shell, “an interactive interpreter: it reads commands, finds the corresponding programs, runs them, and displays output.” That last sentence alone was new to me. I’m on my way!

I also learned about the scripting program, Python. Python is a dynamic programming language that lets you write “small programs quickly, and be able to manage the complexity of larger ones;” programs like C++ or Fortran. I learned that there are a ton of Python programs (modules) available, all ready to be plugged in to help the knowledgeable person accomplish a task or two. And again, that was my goal going in, i.e. to become knowledgeable enough to know that somebody else has already written the tool that can help me. And after the practice of boot camp, I at least know how to play with them enough to not destroy my computer.

Quick aside: On Sunday night, I dreamt that my computer literally blew up in my face. Ka-BOOM!! Pieces everywhere. I ducked and covered my head, escaping any real injury. Pre-programming camp anxiety, Dr. Jung?

I learned about GitHub and how individuals and teams can use it to share and/or collaborate on projects that involve coding. I learned about version control, something we librarians know an awful lot about already. I learned about SQL and found myself dragging up old tricks from days of building databases in Access, back when I managed HR records for a company. I remembered how much I’d forgotten about writing queries in that format. I also couldn’t help but notice how much of what our instructors taught in this section is what I teach when I’m instructing students and researchers on using PubMed. Same principles, really. Good query construction is good query construction.

Which brings me to a really significant thing that I learned – perhaps the most significant, in terms of relevance to my work as an informationist and the whole world of embedded librarianship that is open to our profession. The boot camp was taught (with the help of a whole bunch of roaming helpers) by two PhD researchers (bioinformatics and biology) who learned most of what they know because they taught themselves. Why did they teach themselves? Because they had to do somethings for their work that they  just knew could be done easier, more efficiently, and better through the use of certain programs.

Hold it! Scroll back up the page and re-read what I wrote in the third paragraph. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

Did you see it? I took this class because I sit on research teams where people continually express the need(s) for something to get done, yet no one has the time and/or inclination to solve the problem. In other words, I am sitting in the exact same seat that the two women who were standing in front of the class for these days once sat. They are both scientists and neither one computer scientists. I doubt that when either of them began studying whatever their discipline is, they anticipated becoming programming instructors. But they did. They are. Because no one else could/would. They took the initiative.

This was an incredible insight for me. I knew that a lot of young students in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences know computing. I assumed it’s because they studied it formally. I assumed it’s because it’s something that came along in their tool kit as scientists. What I’ve now learned is that this isn’t the case at all – or at least not in the vast majority of cases.

Scientists learn things because they need to learn them to solve a problem. If we take the initiative to learn the same things, imagine the value we suddenly bring to a team that has no such person on it already. Both Tracy Teal and Sarah Supp, the lead instructors in my class, admitted that they had opportunities in their careers open up to them because they had taught themselves these skills. It’s not a skill set that every scientist automatically has. They added it to theirs.

The audience for this boot camp was scientists and engineers, colleagues of Tracy and Sarah and the other instructors in the other classes. They see the need to bring these lessons to other scientists, because it’s clearly (1) missing and (2) beneficial to both the individual scientist and research as a whole. As an embedded librarian/informationist, I wasn’t their target. I doubt that they could have even imagined why I was there (along with a couple of other familiar faces). But what they don’t know is that there are others out there, people like me and others doing similar work, who can take these same lessons and apply them to the research teams that we are part of.

Some of the teams where I’m working have programmers on them, but not necessarily to do the things that I’m brought on to do. Further, they are often computer programmers and lack the specific science background that an informationist brings to a team. They have a really advanced skill set in programming and I’m hardly one to take on that role, but for other projects; projects within the greater Research Project, I’m pretty sure that I can learn enough to bring something that’s valued to the team. That’s what I saw in the researchers who taught me the past days. And it was a great, unexpected lesson!


One other thing that I was reminded of last night that also just happens to have some relevance:

As I was in the big city of Boston on the same evening that my friend, Suzy Becker (you might recall her as my hero from a post a few weeks back) was giving a reading / signing to promote her new book, One Good Egg, at Brookline Booksmith, I slogged across town on the hottest day of the year (because that’s what friends do) to enjoy the event. Plus, there was free cake. In a short documentary by Mollie West, Suzy mentioned that she tries to take advantage of the early hours of the day, writing and drawing before her inner critic is awake. I jotted down a note that it’s a good rule to follow in the context of learning something as daunting as programming, too. I need to try and set aside time during each week, preferably early in the morning, to work on honing my new skills before my inner “you’ll never learn how to do that!” self gets going. Message to heart.

Science Boot Camp for Librarians v. 2013 (Sketchnotes)

20 Jun

I had the great pleasure of planning and being a part of the 5th Annual Science Boot Camp for Librarians. As in the past, it did not disappoint in terms of content, learning experiences, networking, and fun. If you’ve been reading my blog all along, you know that I’ve been honing my skills at sketchnoting and scribing over the past month, thus I tried my best to capture at least two of the 3 session topics and speakers in this manner. A number of folks noticed my drawing during the lectures and asked me about them. I promised to share them, so here they are:

Topic: Agriculture Session 1 - Overview

Session One: Agriculture – Overview Lecture


Session One: Agriculture – Applied Lecture


Session Two: Public Health – Overview Lecture


Session Two: Public Health – Applied Lectures

I’m afraid that I couldn’t keep up for the analytic chemistry session. The subject was pretty foreign to me and I found that I needed to think differently to follow along. I also presented within the capstone session. Presenting and sketchnoting simultaneously is covered in the advanced courses. I’m not there yet!

Larry, Darryl, and Darryl

17 Jun

[A Monday afternoon editorial.]


Sometime within the past couple of months, the National Institutes of Health decided to start enforcing the requirements of its public access mandate that went into effect in April of 2008. On the one hand, it was nice of NIH to give its funded researchers a year or two or five to come around to following the rules. Yet on the other, the recent applied pressure has sent a flurry of befuddled and irritated biomedical researchers, clinical researchers, research coordinators, administrative assistants, and any number of other folks my way, usually in a deadline-induced panic, trying to figure out what the heck they’re supposed to do to get in compliance with the law.

For awhile, I was slightly irritated myself – at the researchers, that is. When it comes to “the Mandate,” I’ve been announcing and instructing and updating and troubleshooting ad nauseum for these past years. I’ve sent out countless invitations to talk to departments, to labs, to admins, to the staff in research funding (and to their credit, many – though hardly a majority – took me up on it). I have made it my business to know every in and out and upside down aspect of this Policy since before it became law, lo those many years ago now. And so, over the past couple of months, I’ve stifled more than one, “What rock have you been living under?!” retort to more than one, “NIH has instituted another new thing!” whine landing in my email inbox or coming across my phone line.

All of this said, as I have worked to smooth and soothe and clean up messes these past weeks, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that NIH, and more, the National Library of Medicine, could have done us all a HUGE favor if they had taken just a moment to think through the naming conventions that they chose for the various resources and tools associated with this Policy. Why, for the love of Pete, did you name PubMed Central, PubMed Central? Why is there something so crucial as “My Bibliography” buried within “My NCBI”? Why are there “journal publishers that submit articles on behalf of authors,” as well as “journal publishers that submit manuscripts on behalf of authors”?

If you think that I typed the same thing twice there, read again. Closely. Which is EXACTLY what you have to say to researchers over and over and over again.

And that’s kind of my point. In one of the most basic textbooks of library science, Richard Rubin’s, Foundations of Library and Information Science, every aspiring librarian learns a handful of principles related to information management and organization. As Rubin warns, “Unless there are ways to organize it,it (information) quickly becomes chaos.” (p. 171)

Perhaps one can make a strong argument that the conundrum that is the naming conventions of NIH/NLM resources and tools isn’t really a naming convention problem at all. There certainly are distinctions between them. “My Bibliography” is not the same as “My NCBI.” PubMed is a completely different database than PubMed Central. How hard is this to grasp?!  I argue, harder than the average librarian and/or programmer and/or chief resource namer of highest level (aka CRNHL – pronounced “colonel” – on Twitter) ever realizes.

I bring this topic up on my informationist blog because I find it pretty funny (in a black humor, ironic sort of way) that one of the primary reasons I was placed on a research team was because of my expertise in information organization. Librarians are the experts in applying the standards, language, and processes that help people communicate, find, and access information more easily and efficiently. This being the case, I can’t help but wonder why we shot ourselves in the foot here, choosing labels that are so easily confused and swapped one for the other. Like homology, homography, or holograms and homograms… who can’t help but get these mixed up? And when there is a compliance officer, grant funding, and a deadline all in play, well, we in the information arena could do better to make things a little easier on everyone.

Where Do I Belong?

10 Jun

[A colleague recently posed the question on a professional listserv as to what kind and/or which professional organization best fits an academic, health, and special library librarian – something that many health sciences librarians feel that they are, i.e. a mix of a librarian that doesn’t solely fit within the Medical Library Association (MLA), the American Library Association (ALA), or the Special Libraries Association (SLA). It’s a GREAT question and I wanted to share my reply both to the list and on my blog, as I feel the value of professional organizations, in general, is really up for grabs. I hope this will spark some discussion.]


Do I belong to you?
One of the best children’s book’s ever!

Your question is a really good one AND one that I know is being asked at national, regional and state-level organizations across the board. What is the relevance of these groups. Annual memberships, meeting costs, and service time add up quickly, and in this day and age when both time and money are in short supply, the return on one’s investment really needs to be clear.

I very recently joined SLA. I made this decision for several reasons:

    • My fairly new role as an informationist and embedded librarian requires many skills and covers many topics that I noticed SLA programming and resources (both regionally and nationally) support more than MLA, e.g. entrepreneurship, knowledge management, and embedded librarianship itself.
    •  I feel that my work is progressive in nature, meaning that I’m doing some things as a librarian that haven’t always been viewed as a librarian’s role. Quite frankly, I find MLA as a whole (please read this as a general statement and in no way a reflection upon any individual member and/or group within the organization) to be something less than progressive. We tend to put energies towards fighting a lot of battles that we have likely already lost. This is NOT to say that preserving our past and/or current roles is irrelevant, but I do feel that we often fight to keep things a certain way when we’d do better to fight for change. Again, this is simply my opinion and what played into my joining SLA.
    • I appreciated the fact that membership in the national organization of SLA automatically included membership in the regional and local chapters. To me, this is a critical piece that MLA has missed for awhile. We really need strong local associations in order for the national one to mean much. To paraphrase our former Speaker of the House, “all professional development is local.” We support one another a lot easier in our states and regions than we do at the national level. I have many, many wonderful friends in MLA who I LOVE seeing each year at the annual meeting, but when it comes to the day-to-day of my job, I get the most from colleagues nearby. I have felt for a number of years now that MLA could do a much better job demonstrating that it appreciates the value of the regional chapters.
    • And finally, along with the reason cited above (one cost for both regional and national membership), the fact that membership dues in SLA are based upon a sliding scale, i.e. based upon salary, is a fantastic idea. This didn’t make my membership much cheaper (maybe not cheaper than MLA at all, I can’t remember at the moment), but it demonstrated an effort and awareness on behalf of the organization that while no librarian ever makes a million bucks, there is a bit of difference across the board and those who don’t get paid much, in no way deserve to be left out of professional groups. While my institution has never paid any of my professional association dues, I know that some who experienced this benefit in the past are quickly finding it disappearing. Helping people belong is a good thing.

For now, I’ll remain a member of both MLA and SLA. I’ve not yet experienced enough of SLA to grade it long-term and I do value the relationships I’ve made in MLA, along with most of the annual meeting programming, to stay a member. Hopefully, I’ll be able to afford both for awhile, but I think that you raise a really good – and REALLY important – issue for all groups to grapple with today.

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

6 Jun

I’ve been away from work for almost a week, spending time with my father and doing those things that make people say, “Oh, you are such a good daughter,” despite the fact that I wasn’t feeling like one. Watching your parents age, as well as helping with things that come along with the aging process, is difficult. It can bring out both the best and the worst in you.

outofficeThe time away also made me miss my Librarian Hats blog. I missed time with my teams and I missed time in the library. I missed my projects and the work that I’m doing and the weekly sharing of that with all of you. It’s great to get away. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m hardly one to shy away from a break from work and I’ll never turn down a good vacation, but it’s also a really nice feeling to know that I’ve come to a place where I enjoy my work so much that I miss it when I’m away. Fortunately, I know a lot of people in this profession who feel similarly. It’s a nice bonus for being a librarian.

Last week, before leaving town, I had the chance to speak at a staff development day for the librarians at Tufts University in Boston. I always like getting to meet colleagues outside of the health sciences and/or medical library world. While Tufts Medical School librarians were present at the event, so were others from their different libraries, making the meeting a great chance to hear about some ideas, projects, innovations and tools that I don’t usually stay up to date on. Discovery tools and on-demand purchasing are the kind of topics that don’t make their way across my radar, so it was a nice opportunity to hear about them.

Two librarians shared their experiences being embedded in different programs and projects. Regina Raboin, Data Management Services Coordinator and Science Research & Instruction Librarian for the Tisch Library at Tufts described her work as part of the faculty teams for 4 different undergraduate courses. A couple of things that Regina said that really struck me, (1) “I was part of the team” and (2) the courses that she was embedded in were all multi-disciplinary in nature. A couple were in environmental studies and the other two were seminar courses. In other words, the classes involve bringing together faculty from different parts of the campus – different schools, different disciplines. This reminds me of what I’ve experienced in my work as an informationist, i.e. all of the studies and projects that I work on require a lot of different kinds of people with different skill sets in order to be successful. I wonder if this isn’t an important key to librarians finding a home on research teams. When the team is made up of people from lots of backgrounds, no one discipline and/or skill set dominates. Team members naturally look to the expertise of the different members, making the skills of the embedded librarian and/or informationist not stand out as such a foreign thing, different from everyone else.

Jane Ichord, a clinical librarian for the Hirsch Library of Tufts Medical School shared her experience being embedded one day each week, attending rounds and working with the pediatricians and other providers at one of their hospitals. Jane also mentioned a few things that I wrote “blog” next to in my notes, my reminder to myself to expand on the thought in one of my posts here. First, she said that when she was first asked to take on this role it was several years ago and while she really wanted to do it, the administration and structure of her library at the time were not in the right place for it to happen. More recently though, things changed and she was given the okay to pursue the role. One cannot stress enough how important this is in the success of embedded librarian programs. Library administration has to be supportive in time, structure, direction, and mission for these programs to work. Librarians wanting to become embedded have to feel empowered to make a lot of decisions on their own. They have to know that it’s okay to be away from the library. They have to be assured that their bosses trust them to build relationships. I feel really fortunate in my current position that this is true, but like Jane, it wasn’t always the case. We weren’t always ready for me (or others) to take on this role. However, when I heard my director say that she would give me the role of informationist on the mammography study whether we got the NIH grant or not, I knew that she was fully supportive of the work. It’s that kind of attitude that gives a librarian the feeling of autonomy necessary to become fully embedded in a team.

Lastly, Jane said regarding her Mondays at the Floating Hospital, “It’s changed my life. Well, it’s changed my work life.” When it comes to my own experiences as an informationist, I can’t say it any better. I have the job today that I always wanted in a library, even when I didn’t know it existed. Heck, even before it did exist! And I’m happy to be back at it today.