Tag Archives: research process

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.

Wanted: Alive or Not Deceased

9 Oct

This morning’s process evaluation meeting involved a lengthy discussion about a particular field in one of the sources from which we’re collecting data for the study. It involved talking about “flags flipping” and logic statements. It involved looking at the code that someone else had written and figuring out (trying to, at least) what the variable associated with the field in question really meant. It involved data regarding a patient’s status and it turns out that we can be one of THREE things. Really. Three. Alive (check), dead (makes sense) or null. Null? What does “null” mean? A person is either alive or deceased. There’s a category, “Null”? And from there, the discussion went.

This experience would have struck me a lot more ridiculous had it not been for one pretty glaring fact – it happens everywhere. And all of the time. To people at every level of work from the corner convenient mart to health care research studies to Congress. Everyone is talking, but is anyone being heard? People are publishing facts and figures and reports and stories, but is anyone reading them? It’s as if everything has become the instruction manual that nobody ever bothered to read.

I have attended more meetings lately where the discussion is either directly or implicitly about communication; specifically, where it fails. At the same time, though, it seems that too often, the solutions offered to solve a communication problem do little to change the situation that causes the poor communication in the first place. Here’s an example:

  • Problem: A website is poorly designed, making it quite difficult to identify particular resources that students, faculty and/or researchers need.
  • Solution: Ask users of the site to tell you what they use and how they find it. Redesign the site accordingly.

Now, at first glance and in what has become standard practice, this makes a lot of sense. People way smarter than me have spent a whole heckuva lot more time on usability testing and website design than I have. I won’t argue that. What I will argue, though, is this… at what point in accommodating users do we forsake “good” behavior and/or reinforce “poor” behavior. In other words, if a person can’t find something in a logical manner, we believe in creating a solution that allows him/her to find it using their logic, whether it’s logical or not. Rather than instruct an individual on how to do something, we’ve opted (because we can and because it’s so darned easy) to look at the behavior and create an easy way to accommodate it. [Tangent: It’s like my former neighbor, a college professor, who once told me that there’s no point in assigning certain lengthy readings to students anymore, because they don’t read them. Instead, assign them things that they will read. What?!]

I’m not against progress, by any means, nor am I one resistant to change, but I find myself questioning our patterns and practices for problem solving, particularly in regards to improving communication. Is it possible that we have created a situation in which it is SO easy to communicate, we’re lessening our effectiveness at it? It’s so simple to compose an email, to shoot off a text, to build another subject guide, to write another line of code… it’s so easy to do all of these things in our work nowadays, we’ve perhaps lost (or are losing) the ability to sit, plan, purposefully draft and talk through with others the implications of our decisions, and document what we’re doing. That last bit it key. Particularly in research.

Even the best research projects in the best labs seem to fall to the temptation of poor documentation. We read about it in the news. We see it in retractions of journal articles. It’s everywhere.

Today, I taught a class of first-year students in our Clinical and Population Health Research doctoral program. My job was to teach them good strategies for searching the literature. I did my usual spiel about the importance of putting together a plan, writing things down, thinking through the different relevant terms for the search, listing them, etc. I told them how it’s a skill to build a good search, one that will yield you the results that you want and need. I hit all of the highlights and covered all of the important pieces.

And then I went to one of several bibliographic databases (take your pick) and had to explain how everything that I’d just taught them was completely undermined by the simplicity of what’s become the default for pretty much every resource we use nowadays.

Now let me pause and be clear – I love Google. I use it every single day of my life (when I’m online). It is effective and efficient and I’m not about to climb on the librarian bandwagon that beats it down (to no avail). It’s a GREAT resource. Google is a wonderful thing in our world. So wonderful, in fact, that it’s reinforced every notion, every dream, every desire for simplicity that seems hardwired into our human wiring. It is easy. It is fast. And it works good enough.

But here’s the thing. To a hammer, everything is a nail. To a Google user, every search is a simple one. Every search yields a good enough answer. AND… every search is fast. And to me, this is the danger.

Searching for information, along with every other thing we do that technology has made so much easier and so much faster, is a double-edged sword. For everything that we do easier and faster, we reinforce doing everything easier and faster. For how easy and fast it is for me to send a text, the more texts I send. And the more texts I send, the less time I ever spend thinking about (or heaven forbid, editing) them. And the more texts I send, the more I receive. And the more I receive, the more I answer. And the more I throw this information back and forth and back and forth, the less time I ever spend reading any of it. And THEN, all of these tools we’ve created to connect us to one another, to help us communicate… well… you tell me.

I asked the folks on the study team how in the world they would ever do a study like they’re undertaking now without computer programs, with codes for switching flags on and off, automatically putting certain pieces of data in one shoot or another? How would it even be possible? The programs are essential, but unless we sit and think and talk about and document what we’re doing, they generate more work than they ever save.

The ability to generate and gather so much data, so easily, is intoxicating. I wonder if one role the informationist might play is that of the designated driver. Give us the keys before you start collecting data, and we’ll help you get home safely.