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Should Health Sciences Librarians be Involved with Big Data in Healthcare?

Posted by on April 23rd, 2018 Posted in: Data Science
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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 Wittenbreer, Head Medical Librarian, Regions Hospital, St. Paul, MN

I would like to give an enthusiastic YES to the question “Should health sciences librarians get involved with big data in healthcare?” I believe that librarians have the skill sets to provide assistance and collaborate with most professions. However the size of my yes gets bigger or smaller when I step back and look at my current situation.

I am a hospital librarian in a regional integrated healthcare system with a large research and education institution. As hospital librarians, our first priority is assisting and providing clinicians with knowledge-based resources for patient care. I don’t want to make this into an issue about not having adequate staff and time but it does come into play. The librarians in the Read article spent a substantial amount of time reading the literature, choosing and creating questions, selecting the study participants and conducting the interviews and then analyzing the results to determine how and what the librarians could assist the researchers. In my institution, I would need a champion who had already half-way convinced those doing research that it would be worth their time to speak with a librarian. I am not saying that this is impossible, but the challenge is there. Or do I need to get over this and accept that not being adequately staffed is the new norm.

Hospital librarians are very capable in training researchers in how to best store and archive data and how to make it findable for future users. We are also capable of writing instructions for standardizing these processes. Our skill set allows us to step-in at the beginning of a project to help organize and identify any special services that might be needed. I particularly liked Martin’s view that at the center of all this big data collection is the user, not the data. Her division of user’s needs into different buckets was helpful in that it put into perspective, one piece at a time, what a librarian’s role would be in each category. Thus breaking big data into smaller pieces.

But I have to admit my eyes glaze over at the mention of R, Python, Tableau,  LOCKSS, and CLOCKSS. This class, I feel, did an excellent job of introducing me to Data Science and its language. I felt that I could read the articles without having to look up too many definitions. Looking back to 9 weeks ago, I realize how little I really understood about Big Data. Now I realize that I know probably just enough to confuse myself and others. I am definitely caught in a training gap and it is decision time. Do I continue to educate myself and suggest to my co-workers to do as well, or do I stop because nothing will ever come of any additional training.

Then my inner librarian voice speaks up and says, “Keep Going!” There are many opportunities for librarian involvement in Data Management within my organization.  Researchers have been extracting patient population data from the EMR for a number of years. They may have systems in place for storing, archiving and sharing but I won’t know until I ask. Holding information interviews might very well be possible for me and my co-workers to handle. Find that champion. Take more courses.

I realize that my situation may be unique in the hospital library world. Not all hospitals have an established research arm. If a librarian’s job is to organize information, data is information. Librarians will need to know how to search the data sets and interpret the meaning just as we do different databases and journal article types. To not be involved in Big Data or to not train future librarians in Data Science is not forward thinking. In the 2017-2027 NLM Strategic Plan Dr. Brennan states in From the Director section, “The very nature of libraries is changing.” I say a big YES.


Image of the author ABOUT Derek Johnson
Derek is a Minnesota native who relocated to Iowa in 2013. His professional experiences include public health, prospect research, competitive intelligence, and outreach librarianship. Derek and his wife reside in Coralville with their daughter and two dogs (mini goldendoodle and mini poodle)!

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This project has been funded in whole or in part with Federal funds from the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, under Grant Number 1UG4LM012346 with The University of Iowa.

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