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The MARquee May 22nd, 2019
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Perspectives of Librarian Involvement in the Use of Big Data and Data Science

Posted by on October 25th, 2017 Posted in: Data Science, Education


In the NNLM Big Data in Healthcare: Exploring Emerging Roles course, we asked participants, as they progressed through the course to consider the following questions: Do you think health sciences librarians should get involved with big data in healthcare? Where should librarians get involved, if you think they should? If you think they should not, explain why. You may also combine a “should/should not” approach if you would like to argue both sides. NNLM will feature responses from different participants over the coming weeks.


Written By Mary Pat Harnegie, MLIS, AHIP, Medical Librarian, Cleveland Clinic Alumni Library and Manager, South Pointe Hospital Library

ostrich and man with their heads in the sand

This picture puts into words about how I might want to feel about Big Data and the role of the Librarian. After seeing the complexity of the Big Data processes and the unorganized systems that contribute to its disorder, I feel overwhelmed with the expansiveness of what needs to be done to make it usable. If I put my head in the sand, the problem(s) go away…Right?! Wrong!!

Sometimes, order comes out of organizing parts of disorder. So if you have a big picture of chaos, one way to attack the disorder is to pick a part that one can bring into order. When my family is faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem, I tell them that solving the problem is like eating an elephant. You can’t eat an elephant all in one sitting, but you have to deal with it in bite size chunks. The same thing can be applied to a problem: break down your problem in bite size chunks, identify facets of the problem, develop a solution to, and execute it. Look at the next facet of the problem, solve it. After a series of time, you have your elephant-sized problem solved because you dealt with it incrementally.

The class participants observed many examples of what is big data and its amazing applications in business and commerce. Several applications of Big Data and its use in medicine were exhibited in the videos of Kaelber, Longhurst and Meo. I found Dr. Longhurst’s examples of Big Data implications and adopted practices interesting. When given the opportunity of the supported research option and another “this is the way we have always done it” option in the EHR, his colleagues would often choose the second option. But when the EHR was defaulted to the supported research option, with the alternative option available as a “fill-in the blank”, researchers took the road of least resistance and checked the defaulted option. It seems that a lot of the success he described was in giving colleagues an easy-to-use default of the supported recommended action. This was the case in Dr. Kaelber’s examples.

Many of our readings utilized in the course discussed the nature of the unstructured data and its uselessness. The librarian has a place in the Big Data universe as a provider of organizational skills. We have experience in building ontologies like MeSH, where a controlled vocabulary can facilitate a uniform vocabulary through the use of related terms and automated relationship that can help build order in a data schema as well be used a format for use in machine learning. In our readings, we see that the massive amount of data will have to be parsed against standards of uniformity to be reliable and usable. This organizational skill can contribute to Big Data utilization in this way.

Librarians have database design and development skills that can be applied to the organization and data mining processes for Big Data processing. These skills can be adapted and refined for data management processes also. The use of a clinical decision making features, similar to the Green Button, will require organization, architecture design and prioritization that librarians have developed as a tool of their trade.

The enormity of the processes needed to happen is the reason for the picture of the ostrich and the man’s head in the sand. But in ignoring the elephant in the room, librarians will not serve their ultimate constituent well- the patient. The Big Data elephant presents a large and complex set of problems to be organized to be effective in patient care. Our skill sets can make us a team player in the organization, analysis and dissemination of great health care information and practices.

Image of the author ABOUT Hannah Sinemus
Hannah Sinemus is the Technology Liaison for the Middle Atlantic Region (MAR). Although she updates the MAR web pages, blog, newsletter and social media, Hannah is not the sole author of this content. If you have questions about a MARquee or MAReport posting, please contact the Middle Atlantic Region directly at nnlmmar@pitt.edu.

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This project is funded by the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, under Cooperative Agreement Number UG4LM012342 with the University of Pittsburgh, Health Sciences Library System.

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