The Talented Mr. Ripley in the Library with the Candlestick

25 Sep

I’ve had a rotten week or at least the kind of week where too many things haven’t gone the way I’d like them to go; online conference applications, insurance company coverage changes, my puppy. I say this as a preface to today’s post, stating that while I’m still the biggest cheerleader for library innovation and new roles, right now I’m tired. And it might show in my thoughts below.

Patricia Highsmith was a terrific writer who could create a story of suspense to rival the best; her novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, the perfect example. If you never read the book, you might recall the movie adaptation that came out in the late 1990s and starred several pretty people – Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Cate Blanchett. It’s a story of a young man who so longs to live in a world of which he is not a part, that he befriends someone in the circle on false pretenses, and ultimately (SPOILER ALERT) murders him to assume his identity.

Lately I’ve been feeling a little Ripley-esque in my work.

Being a part of a research team is a great experience. As I’ve written numerous times over the past months, one of the things that defines the embedded informationist is having a place on the team. An equal place. Everyone brings his/her skill set and expertise to the team. As I’ve served on the mammography study team, the mHealth project, the Community Engagement Research Section, and a grant-writing team for a potential PCORI study, I’ve been more than welcomed as a true team player and one who brings needed knowledge and skills to the work. I love what I do.

But the truth of the matter is that not everyone on a team is equal. An embedded librarian, no matter how much s/he builds partnerships and collaborations over support roles, is still, by the nature of the work that we do, providing support to the work of the team. Information management, knowledge management, data management… it is all essential, but still something like the infrastructure of the team, i.e. a foundation for things to run more smoothly, efficiently, and effectively, but not in and of itself (necessarily), the driving force. That role(s) falls to the researchers. They are, ultimately, at the helm.

Every now and then I have the crazy notion to apply for our doctoral program in Clinical and Population Health Research. I’m too old and too in debt with student loans already to take on yet one more degree, but the thought intrigues me, particularly as I work so closely with the students and faculty in that program and teach them myself about how to search, access, and organize good information in their research. Once, when I was entertaining the thought more strongly than others, I asked a faculty member what she thought was the best part about having a PhD. “You get to decide the kind of work that you want to do,” she said, “Rather than always doing what others decide for you.”

It’s a significant point. Tom Ripley was never a true peer to Dickie Greenleaf, because he was not of the same pedigree. Doctors travel in the circles of doctors, researchers in the circles of researchers, and librarians in the circles of librarians. This isn’t to say that we don’t mix and mingle OR that we don’t need one another in our respective work OR that we don’t provide those necessary skills to make our respective work go better. But we do have different jobs and with them, different expectations, obligations, and/or constraints. We know our own worlds best and while we can do really, really well operating in another’s world, it still isn’t quite ours.

My Tom Ripley persona is no doubt brought on lately by my sense of being pulled in multiple directions. This is natural, I know, for anyone juggling multiple projects. It’s hard to stay on top of everything and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The same qualities of the work that make it so exciting and fun, e.g. variety in subjects and people and tasks, also make it feel, at times, like a tidal wave. After all, an embedded librarian is still only one person, and as is almost always the case, also a non-embedded librarian. In other words, you give a lot of yourself and your time and your focus to the teams of which you’re a part, but you’re also still a part of the library and with that comes a whole other plate of responsibilities and an environment that, even at its most flexible and/or autonomous, answers to a public and an administration that requires people to be at certain places at certain times.

It’s part and parcel of working with the public, something that is not necessarily an issue in research. Yes, some researchers work with the public. Clinicians certainly work with the public. But there is a schedule in those worlds often driven more by the former’s calendar than the latter.

Similarly, many of the researchers (particularly clinical researchers) that I know wear multiple hats. They see patients, they sit on teams, they teach, and they work for different departments. They also balance a lot of things. Yet, there is something different in their work, compared to mine. Or at least I feel that way today. (Maybe differently tomorrow.) One of the things that I think that’s different for these professionals, compared to librarians, is the understanding that continued education and professional growth is a given. It’s an expectation of your work. It’s part of your work. After all, if you don’t stay up-to-speed on your skills and your subject knowledge, you become somewhat dangerous, if you’re a doc, and/or irrelevant and unfunded, if you’re a researcher.

Librarianship, in many ways, was able to manage for a long time without being on the cutting edge, yet when information started flowing in the unfathomable volume and speed we see today, anyone working in the field of information who hasn’t kept up is pretty quickly getting swept aside by the torrential rush. We now HAVE to keep up. Heck, we have to keep ahead! And not only in our “dominant” field of librarianship, but also in whatever other areas we hold up as the “extra value” that we bring to our teams. Remember, the original idea of the informationist is a person with both library knowledge and skills, AND expertise in a clinical or research area.  (Davidoff and Florance, 2000)

The informationist who cannot afford to keep up his/her knowledge in both areas gradually becomes less and less effective in his/her work. And this, my friends, is where our professional circles lose their Venn Diagram overlap. Our emphasis is still very much weighted in favor of improving our librarian skills over the other knowledge/subject areas/expertise that we bring to the table. For those, we still need to do a lot of work outside of work, on our own time, on our own dime, and of our own initiative.

Now I don’t want to sound like I’m whining. I imagine that anyone who seeks to be really good at what s/he does, does this. I know that I’m never going to be a better mandolin player without practicing; without doing a lot of work at times that I could be doing something else, and for an amount of money that I could be spending on something else. But that’s me learning to play my mandolin, not me learning to do my job better. I know that researchers don’t have unlimited funds and/or time to go off willy nilly attending every conference or class that they wish, either, but I do think that in this age of multidisciplinary and cross-disciplinary research, librarians who want to support such projects need to find a way within our working lives to follow the lead of researchers and keep current in multiple areas.

Ahhhh… but that’s way easier said than done when we’re still part of a department that is dependent upon a core group of people, resources, and services to remain viable. Embedded librarians and informationists, unless they are full-time employees of a clinical/research department (or dare we one day go the way of consultants), still answer first and foremost to their libraries. At least this is still our expectation. I don’t know if, when, or how it could change, but in my own personal quandary, trying to figure out where we belong most now, I’ve been asking if it needs to change. And while I don’t believe that any change will help us completely shed our separate circle from the docs and PIs, I do believe that any and everything we can do to gain credibility in their circle is warranted. And few things do that better than being able to speak their language, not just librarian talk.

 

One Response to “The Talented Mr. Ripley in the Library with the Candlestick”

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  1. Dr. Who?: A Library Director Responds | A Librarian by Any Other Name - September 30, 2013

    […] read Sally’s latest post with interest as it suggests questions about the embedded librarianship model that I have been […]

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