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Superman and Batman Rolled Into One

Posted by on October 28th, 2011 Posted in: Advocacy

In our final submission, a library faculty member shares his story of a challenging reference situation for a young paraprofessional.  While not necessarily advocacy, it reinforces the power of our profession and the impact we make on both our patrons AND ourselves.


By Steven MacCall, Associate Professor, University of Alabama, School of Library and Information Studies

“I always tell this story to the library school students taking my Health Librarianship course. It’s about how I discovered the power of a particular library service and how it can amaze and astonish (not to mention, seriously satisfy) library users:

Physicians are writers, especially physicians practicing in an academic health sciences center because many have second research-oriented specialties for which they have masters or PhD degrees. Whether physicians are writing up the results of clinical investigation, bench science, or some kind of humanities research, there is always that last minute challenge of completing the reference list of cited works according to some arcane and seemingly arbitrary style guide. The problem, however, is always the same: Physicians often rush to the library at the last minute in order to get assistance in piecing together complete citations from the partial bibliographical data they had written on scrap paper during the library research process, research that very well may have occurred months prior to their current harried library visit. With looming editorial deadlines, the anxiety levels were often very high for both the inquiring physician AND for this paraprofessional (me) who was starting out his career at an academic health sciences center library!

Well, as luck would have it, I had GREAT paraprofessional training from a wonderful staff of professional librarians led by Barbara McNamee and Marlene Englander, but this did not include the concept of citation matching. But as luck would have it, our library had what was then state-of-the-art, unlimited search access to locally hosted MEDLINE files so there were no telecomm charges (remember those days?). Because I was a curious sort, I loved to sit at the one of the open workstations, study the user manuals, and type queries in the MEDLINE search interface. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon the instructions in the user manual for the “known item search strategy” useful for locating full citations and played with its capability to retrieve full MEDLINE records with minimal inputted data. Little did I know what I was preparing myself to do!

Given that there were so many physician writers on that campus, it did not take long from one to show up with the need for complete citations based on the limited bibliographical data that remained on his scraps of paper. Somehow, that self-training kicked in and I knew exactly what to do. I will NEVER forget the look on that physician’s face when after doing a quick search based on the limited bibliographic data he gave me. I slowly turned the computer screen toward him, showed him the single retrieved result, and asked “is this the article citation that you need?” I don’t know what was more palpable; the joy in his face or his complete astonishment of my awesome display of what to me were my new found librarian powers. I was Superman and Batman rolled into one.

Of course, this story took place in the late 20th century library, so we must take our lesson with somewhat of a grain of salt … or must we? Doesn’t PubMed MEDLINE still have a single citation matcher interface (kept at the behest of librarians)? That having been said, we must continue to strive to extend our librarian powers in order to continue serving time crunched library users in the new contexts of networked library services.”

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