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Get out from behind the stacks: sharing health information with online communities

June 15, 2011

Medical librarians often play a key role in the patient information continuum, and yet they remain “unsung”. Kathy Kastner and I are confident social networking can help change that. So when we were invited to present to medical librarians from the Consumer Health Information Providers Interest Group (CHIPIG), we jumped at the chance.

Present? Forget it! We wanted to learn, so we made it an interactive workshop. We started by asking “Why do you want to engage with people online?” and they fired back:

  • we can be a GPS to relevant and reliable resources
  • we can encourage participatory medicine
  • we can help guide e-patients
  • we can educate healthcare professionals to become e-providers
  • we want to help interpret health information
  • we want to reach a more diverse demographic
  • because more and more physical resource centres are closing

Tellingly, the question “What social networking tools can you use?” became a comparison of hospitals’ restrictions and blocking of social media sites. Sadly, many librarians have never been able to access their hospital’s Facebook page from their workplace. Luckily, some hospitals and organizations subscribe to free flow of information – St. Mike’s, CHEO and UHN to name a few. Are there others?

We wrapped up the workshop with a challenge: Think about how you can use existing social networks to engage, build, inform and learn from online communities. For example:

  • join Twitter
  • create a health librarian’s hashtag
  • search and participate in health discussions and forums
  • post on blogs
  • start your own blog
  • participate on your hospital’s Facebook page

How do you think medical librarians can use social networks to help them get out from behind the stacks?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 17, 2011 12:35 am

    This is a wonderful and timely essay and presentation! I was just discussing with some work colleagues how we will need to research certain disease organizations, patient groups and other relevant sources regarding a therapeutic area when I saw your essay. We need to approach medical librarians to help us with this! I always find something of value here on your site. Thanks Colleen!


  2. June 17, 2011 8:23 am

    Thanks for your comment Carmen. It is through #hcsm and its various geo-chapters that I have been made aware of the full-breadth of value medical librarians have to offer. For me, @pfanderson was my first catalytic librarian connection that has spidered into a vast network.

    By the way, @pfanderson also shared that many medical librarians share on Twitter using the hashtag #medlibs and following @medlibs.


  3. June 17, 2011 11:36 am

    This is a very intriguing conversation and report out on your presentation. Curiously, while the medical librarians are very active in Twitter, there are some different ways in which that has happened that my brain didn’t clearly articulate until you brought this up. Many of us came in before the Twitter chats were common, and were trying alternative ways to create something like that. For example, back in 2008 I was asked to teach some of my approaches to systematic review search strategy creation via Twitter, which resulted in this effort at @pubmedbootcamp. That was a synchronous “class” that folk registered for (free) and were added to the group. It was a cumbersome way to handle things, and while it could have worked, we had a lot of trouble scheduling the people who wanted to join. I think perhaps trying it again as a hashtag chat might work better. Around the same time, the MEDLIBS group was created. The way it works is you have to follow @medlibs and they have to follow you back. To post something to the group, you send a direct message to @medlibs and that message it reposted to the group. You have to keep the messages shorter than usual, around 100-120 characters. What we haven’t done is scheduled a general chat time like #HCSM for conversation within the profession. We do have hashtags that go crazy around specific events (conferences, webinars), and have subtopics that are active (like #healthlit), but we haven’t used #medlibs for a weekly or monthly chat. Perhaps it is time to do so, and address common interests and concerns!


  4. June 17, 2011 10:32 pm

    Having a chat with a librarian focus would be great for peer exchange and allow others to learn more about what you do. However, it is the integration of librarians in the health-related discussions that I was encouraging at the workshop — how to bring the work you do to online communities. Frankly, I can’t imagine #hcsm without people like you Patricia. And what would #hcsmca be like without @danhooker, @ShebaMuturi and @giustini?


    • June 17, 2011 10:44 pm

      I was pondering that. Librarians in social media seem to have been doing exactly that – positioning themselves within existing communities, and serving both as expert information resources and boundaryspanners. I have always found those roles to be absolutely essential to librarianship. So maybe things are fine as they are! That said, @laikas and I spent a bunch of time today brainstorming having a #medlibs chat on a monthly basis …


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