THE LESSON OF THE JOHNS HOPKINS TRAGEDY
After a woman participating in an experiment at Johns Hopkins died from a toxic reaction to the drug hexamethonium, it was discovered that the researcher had made a critical mistake in searching the literature -- he had limited himself to searching Medline, apparently unaware that Medline only covered the medical literature from the mid-sixties to the present. Had he completed his retrospective search by going through the ponderous volumes of Index Medicus, he would have found reports on the toxicity of hexamethonium. Had he asked a librarian for assistance, the librarian would have known enough to take this vital step.
But I fear we may be taking the wrong lesson from this tragedy. I notice a certain, well, smugness in our telling of it -- SEE! We TOLD you that you still need us!
Unfortunately, that doesn't mean all researchers will from this time forward never fail to consult us. It seems to me more likely that many researchers will keep right on doing what they've been doing: searching only the electronic literature. They're no more likely to understand its critical limitations now than they did before the Johns Hopkins incident which they may or may not have heard of. They're no more likely now than they were before to spend hours reading microscopic print in one heavy volume after another of the manual indexes. They're no more likely to ask a librarian for help now than they did before -- after all, if they've got reams of printouts, it may not occur to them they've missed anything.
Before they become serious scholars, after all, they formed their research habits as undergraduates, which is to say, people who choose convenient bad resources over inconvenient important ones every time. And nothing is more convenient than electronic searching. It's quick, efficient, and gives the illusion of completeness. You don't need to bother with note-taking or stuffing dimes into copy machines, you just push a button and print. You don't even have to get dressed and go to the library, because the databases and the web appear to bring the library to you, in your home or office, at any hour of the day or night.
If scholars continue to use nothing but electronic resources, they will continue to miss critical references. People don't usually die as a result of bad literature searching, but it will probably happen again. That's why I think the real lesson to be derived from the Johns Hopkins case is that librarians must make sure those critical backfiles of the indexes and abstracting services ARE available for electronic searching. Who knows better than librarians how vital it is that people get accurate information, however they choose to search for it? Who is going to lead the campaign for massive digitizing projects if not us?
We can't do it by ourselves, of course. God knows, we don't have the money. And the publishers probably won't see sufficient profit motive for doing it. But scholarly societies, which have both mission and money, could. Librarians working for those professional and scholarly organizations could make the case that the societies have an obligation to fund the digitizing of their field's historical indexing and abstracting services, and even, where necessary, to extend the indexing farther back in time. Since librarians are at the forefront of knowledge management, we're the ones who should design a common architecture, metadata, and standards, so that all those individual indexes would be interoperable, and capable of being integrated into one massive database. We could form partnerships with existing digitizing projects like JSTOR, and put their experience and knowledge and good working relationships with publishers to use.
Yes, I'm talking about a massive, expensive enterprise, distributed in manageable chunks across numerous scholarly groups, that will take a lot of time, thought, and money to carry out in entirety.
So maybe in the meantime it wouldn't be a bad idea for librarian specialists to make sure that historical information that could make life and death differences gets digitized first, like all pre-electronic reports on drug toxicity, for instance, or early engineering literature on structural failures. In every discipline, under the auspices of universities or scholarly societies, librarians could create web sites contain the key documents of their field.
It's appealing to think that the Johns Hopkins story might lead researchers to realize the importance of librarians. But our real source of professional pride comes from supplying the information people need. If people insist on doing all their searching electronically, the most professional response may be to create the resources that insure their answers may be found electronically.
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There's nothing the least bit charming or comic about a truly failing memory. Its effects are demeaning, humiliating, horrific. Now, extrapolate. Imagine a society that doesn't care to remember, that doesn't bother to keep its collective memory sharp. That prospect is just as unpleasant. What's more, the scale of vulnerabilities grows.
Part of the reason you are so freaking important and, if you'll pardon the buzzword, heroic, Mister and Ms. NewBreed Librarian & all the Support Staff at Sea, is that you care for our memory. You keep it spry, busy, popping with new thoughts, and you work obsessively to make its components readily available - sometimes instantly - to the people who need it, whose lives it enriches. If "enriches" sounds stale, try this: Whose lives it makes tolerable, safer, funnier, more interesting, healthier, calmer, more productive, libidinous, spiritual, smarter, more amusing. Because if you think about it you'll admit that everyone who steps in your door or uses your website lives better than they would have without your efforts.
Bruce Jensen. "Keepers of the Long Memory: A Twisted Appreciation." New Breed Librarian, February, 2002 http://www.newbreedlibrarian.org/archives/
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2002.
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