Librarians and what we do – conference musings

I have just returned from the Health Libraries Group (HLG) Conference held at the Lowry Centre in Manchester Salford. I don’t often go to this biennial event, though I am a member of the Health Libraries Group. I am not really a health librarian so I have only a few shared interests with most members, who are concerned with the NHS and healthcare information. My concerns are focused on the MRC and biomedical science – “proper” research don’t-ya-know. Much of the conference passes over my head therefore, but I did find some papers of interest.
What is health information? asked Lyn Robinson from City University, refining this as “what is it about what we do that defines us as librarians?” She suggested that our distinguishing feature is our concern with the information communication chain from end to end, creation > dissemination > organization > indexing > retrieval > use. She characterized our interventions in the chain as domain analysis: historical studies, bibliographies, resource guides, information retrieval and bibliometrics all fall under this title.
She suggested that we are not tied to particular formats, which may come and go (microfiche, anyone?) or particular techniques (who remembers peek-a-boo cards? Apparently they were in use at MRC HO in the early 1980s). The thing that defines us, and that doesn’t go away, is this information communication chain. I would add that sometimes we do have to get into the nitty gritty of particular formats and techniques, and we need to cut through the Gordian knots that the chain can get itself into, to ensure that the information does keep on flowing. [Hmm, not sure that metaphor quite worked …]
The idea of domain analysis also intrigued me. My own minuscule contribution to the conference was a spot helping to publicise some bursaries that are being offered in memory of Leslie Morton – a great medical librarian bibliographer who was professionally active for an extraordinary 80 years until his death in 2004. He was my predecessor-but-one as librarian at NIMR, so I knew him a little. His interests were in medical librarianship, bibliography and medical history, so all fit into the category of domain analysis.
Andrew Booth looked further at this question of librarians’ expertise. Inspired by the premise of evidence-based medicine (viz that the competence of medical doctors decreases with years of experience), he decided to see what was known about the skills of expert versus novice librarians. Most of the studies he found concern expertise in searching, and quite a few of them compared librarians’ skills with those of novice or expert users (mostly clinicians, I think).
He commented that generally to be considered an expert you need ten or more years of experience in whatever it is you are expert in. But, surveying the 79 library skills studies he identified, it seems that it takes only between 4 and 8 searches to become expert. This is a bit of a blow to our self-esteem. Where expert librarians win out over novices is in their mental models of the information landscape, and their ability to structure, evaluate, select and filter. Also experienced librarians had better communication skills, helping them to better identify the information need. Andrew was presenting preliminary results but I will look forward to seeing his full analysis.
This stuff about age and experience seems relevant elsewhere too, as some suggest that scientists’ best work is done before they reach 40. I wondered too whether the Im-a-scientist project might reveal any age-related differences – that was about understanding questions and providing answers, a little like literature searching.
Another interesting presentation was from Tony Warne (Salford University) who took us on a journey through learning and thinking. He suggested that ‘not knowing’ is better than ‘knowing something that may be wrong’ (I’m not sure about that, as it suggests the possibility of absolute certainty about truth. Surely there is always the possibility that something you know is wrong?). He described learning as what happens when you are on the edge between knowing and unknowing. ‘Not knowing’ is more important than knowledge in enabling learning and you have to allow yourself into that ‘not knowing’ space as it leaves you room to develop insights.
This all sounds a bit hippy (he did have a pony tail and his website uses black backgrounds) but I think it makes sense. It chimed with something a later speaker said about the need for librarians to go outside their comfort zones in order to seek out new areas of work. Exploring things I don’t really know about but that seem linked to my work is something I have always believed in (hence why I am here on NN).
Tony Warne went on to describe his weekly blogging practice, looking back at the past week and thinking laterally, visualising and Googling to link his ideas into a trail of consciousness. He described Google as a tool to remind yourself of what you know but forgot that you know. It struck me forcibly that in this chain of communication there is little room for librarians to intervene or analyse any domains.
The final session to which I paid any attention (in one earlier session my notes just say (LOSING THE WILL TO LIVE) was one that I was chairing, so I was focused more on the number of minutes than on the content. I enjoyed a description of using Library Thing to create a curated list of recommended books, and a description of a four-person group blog on health informatics. I asked the latter speaker what he thought about the pros and cons of community blogging platforms, but it seems there are none of these in the library blogging world. Perhaps that is a good thing.
If you want to see more you can check out the conference tweets at #hlg2010 .

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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5 Responses to Librarians and what we do – conference musings

  1. Frank Norman says:

    Hmmm. It seems I still haven’t properly figured out the publishing mechanism here as this post came out with an old pubdate. Never mind.

  2. Alan Fricker says:

    Hi Frank,
    Really interesting post – very helpful. I suspect there are almost certainly community blogging platforms in the library world – I wonder if is an example – perhaps not.
    One reason against using this nature platform is that I had to create a registration on the site to comment rather than being able to use my wordpress ID for example. This is a quite common convenience and helpful for keeping things linked together.

  3. Frank Norman says:

    Thanks Alan. That site looks interesting, I will have to take a closer look. It seems to be a blogging platform, but with less emphasis on the individual blogs than here. Your point about the sign-in here is well-made and has been discussed at length recently, e.g. here and here . With a bit of luck things may evolve here.

  4. Åsa Karlström says:

    Frank> thanks for linking to this post at the other post since I can’t seem to find it otherwise….
    I love the notes, maybe it would’ve been better if you had the little girl BobOhara posted on his blog yesterday? 😉
    (I’d link it if I knew how… and yes, I see the irony all over this comment)

  5. Frank Norman says:

    Asa – Thanks! I think some topics are just not easy to make interesting in a short conference talk. Luckily I was sat near the back so I was able to sneak out before I got too full of tedium.

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