Elaine Alligood is the Chief, Library Service for the Boston VA Healthcare System's three campuses and is the 2013 recipient of the Vagainas Librarian of the year award.
Q. Can you please explain your current role and how it came about?
A. It’s an ironic tale for sure! In March of 2011 I worked at VA Boston in a National VA program:the VA Technology Assessment Program. We did systematic reviews of the evidence for the Chief Patient Care Services Officer in the VA Central Office. I’d been there for 16 years. Looking back, I was in total change mode, I was divorcing my husband of 21 years and following that up were significant work changes & challenges! VA N.E. libraries were stale: librarians around VA New England were retiring without replacements or succession planning. A decreasing morale and lack of professional mojo among the Library Services usurped energy and creativity—nothing new was going on except fear and whining about closing libraries. Frankly, it was simply horrific! So,a colleague and I started chatting up the food chain with examples of 21st century librarian practices, making the case that we needed to stem the tide of library closings AND medical errors while increasing and improving accurate and timely information access.. We aggressively countered the misperception that all anyone needed was a paraprofessional to do document delivery. I disseminated tons of evidence from the literature to make the case (doing all those systematic reviews helped). Thus, in March 2011, my pal Joan and I were asked to be on the Libraries Re-Design Task Force! In May 2011, my work group was informed we were closing in August! Luckily, at that moment, I was on the recruitment team to hire the new Boston VA librarian. On the day I found out that my job was ending I called my colleague and chair of the recruitment team and left him an amusing message letting him know I had the perfect candidate for the job! The rest is history!
Q. What are some of the challenges and rewards of your position?
A. My greatest challenges lie in promoting my services AND my capabilities across the three Boston hospitals. My experience is that most clinicians just don’t know how much and how powerful we 21st century librarians are today. Especially challenging are the clinicians who didn’t go to medical school with a laptop under their arms. We've got a huge array of databases and digital content that users need to integrate into their work. It's just like Naisbitt's Megatrends predicted in 1982: high tech requires high touch! And, that's me!--the high touch Informationista! I want to get our users to fully experience the WIIFM (What's In It For Me) that eContent offers for working faster and smarter.
We’re a huge hospital and not everyone knows I exist. Boston used to have 4-6 librarians, now there’s just me (thankfully, we’re recruiting right now for another librarian).
Surprisingly, there is no open library space currently, so I’ve developed several shameless self-promoting tactics to achieve this. I introduce myself to anyone in a white coat, scrubs, or not obviously a patient and hand them an eye-catching flyer. My mission is to ensure everyone knows who I am and what I can do, along with all the terrific resources available to improve their clinical and research practice. The reward is that they use them, ask more questions, call me more often, invite me to present to residents, and to teach evidence based research. I’m at the point now where I’m overwhelmed with work, but in a good way (sort of). I’m supporting three research projects, working directly with clinicians at their desktops, and with our Harvard psychiatry residents and nurse residents. I couldn’t be happier that help is on the way.
Q. What are the major differences between this role and librarian appointments you’ve held in the past?
A. My work is much more hands-on, intellectually, than ever before! These days, information needs don’t occur in the physical, dusty, creaky, library spaces—they occur at the point of care, at the point of need, on rounds, in the ER, and in the lab. With our electronic content, users can access resources anywhere they are, anywhere they have internet. So my job is to empower users, teach them to use/access these resources, integrate them into their work, connect them to alerts and assist them when they need it. My goal is to be part of the clinical team, rounding with them and hanging out in the emergency room a few days each week. In a quirky sort of way, knowledge transfer is about adjacency as much as anything else. The best part of all is that I don’t have any real purchasing, cataloging or HR tasks. So my time is really focused on improving users’ skills and connecting them to knowledge.
Q. Why is it so crucial for librarians to play a part in diagnosis and patient safety?
A. 1 in 20 patients in the ER dies from a missed diagnosis; medical errors are the 3rd largest cause of death. Stakes are high and time is short in the ER. We can assist mitigating diagnostic or medical errors by working in the ER--adjacency generates familiarity. Familiarity enables the white coats to ask more questions, ask for help and admit uncertainty. We can raise awareness of cognitive biases, train users to step back, use a diagnostic checklist tool such as ISABEL, and more.America may run on Dunkin – but Health Care runs on information! Who better than an Informationista and librarians to help?We know what they need, we know what they don’t know and, above all, we know where to find it!
Q. You believe librarians need to move out of the library “place” to where the information needs are. Does this thinking extend beyond healthcare?
A. My philosophy is that everyone can use a good librarian AND a little therapy! I’m a trustee of my local Belmont, Massachusetts public library – (just can’t get enough of libraries, I suppose). I feel strongly—the evidence is growing—that as our society grows more knowledge-work driven we must effectively navigate information and knowledge resources as part of our work, our home lives, and our educations. Librarians need to flip the model a bit. Instead of sending kids TO the library to learn knowledge skills, why not work with kids directly, virtually, in the physical classroom or one on one. I think we need to mitigate the digital divide by providing access tools such as laptops, netbooks, and tablets to our users who can’t obtain them, and train them to the skill levels they’ll require.
Q. What is one piece of advice you would give to a new librarian?
A. Hone your tech skills! Always do your best, and don’t be shy about taking risks, writing a blog, creating a customized search engine, or enthusiastically promoting yourself to possible employers. Find mentors who are doing things you’d like to do. If you’re not working, think about a volunteer gig at the library/organization where you’d like to be. An act of grace can lead to opportunities.
Q. How do you see research libraries evolving in the future?
A. Great question! It seems to me, we’ll have ever more virtual access to the oldest of incunabula and loads of archival and historical content mashed into all sorts of multi-media knowledge portals, connecting history texts with images, video, interactive timelines, and more than I can list. I could be very wrong, but I think expanding the access to historical collections can only improve and expand scholarship. Old and dusty perhaps, but insights await children AND scholars.
Q. Your Twitter handle @informationista is a nod to coffee, and you mention in a tweet that it must be black and sweet. Is strong coffee key to being a successful librarian?
A. Absolutely! Strong coffee is a metaphor for strength of will, character, and a whole lot of patience. Plus, there’s evidence that coffee drinkers have lower rates of Alzheimer's Disease!