Saturday, August 6, 2011

A trip to Pittsburgh: improving my skills as a librarian

I'm behind, I apologize. Thankfully, Andrew and I have been too busy to be up to much, so I haven't missed any, yet.

I don't blog often about work or librarianship, and I'll try to keep things succinct, since what I do as a 'non-traditional librarian' is anything but glamorous. However, I was quite pleased to be given the opportunity to attend a special health librarian session and thought it a suitable opportunity to talk a little bit about what I do. Two weeks ago I attended a workshop at the University of Pittsburgh titled: The Nuts and Bolts of Systematic Reviews for Librarians, a two and a half day course on systematic reviews.

Before I go any further I probably need to clarify what a systematic review is. This is something I've been doing for the past five years, since I began my job. The explanation I normally give is this: A systematic review is generally a large report where we collect all the possible literature for a given question, synthesize the evidence to answer it, and make recommendations for future practice in medicine. Wikipedia describes it as follows: A systematic review is a literature review focused on a research question that tries to identify, appraise, select and synthesize all high quality research evidence relevant to that question. Right, clear as mud? Yeah, I thought so.

The librarian's roll in this process is crucial, and so it's important that they do it right. It's their job to make sure all the possible information, be it journal articles, conference proceedings, government reports, association websites, etc., are located. If they don't do a good job, then it limits the conclusions and recommendations that the review is able to make. This is the reason why I wanted to go to this workshop, to improve my skills as a librarian and to build confidence in my ability to locate evidence for my co-workers. Also, if you recall, one of my birthday resolutions was to become a better librarian.

Okay, the workshop. First of all, I can't say enough about the instructors. They were all excellent presenters, obviously knowledgeable in the content, experienced in the actual practice of searching for reviews, at ease at presenting to a class (there were about 20 of us), over all friendly, and open to questions and comments throughout their sessions. The course was held in the health library at University of Pittsburgh, in a conference room, unfortunately with no windows (probably better as I'd be inclined to watch what was going on outside). We were seated in small groups, each with our own laptop to work on which were equipped with Internet connectivity, and a thumb drive with all the slides from all of the sessions.

The first day was pretty much review for me as I've been completely immersed in the world of systematic reviews for the last five years as a research assistant, and more recently as a librarian and project coordinator. However, not all the librarians there had actually done systematic review searching, and probably fewer were familiar with the entire review process, so it was a necessary discussion. On the plus side, I was able to provide comments/discussion from my own experiences, and hopefully I didn't annoy people by talking too much. Throughout the workshop they discussed the new Institute of Medicine Standards for Systematic Reviews of Comparative Effectiveness, which I appreciated both because it shows they're keeping their content up-to-date (the Standards were released this spring) and because we've been discussing them at work.

The remaining day and a half focused on the librarian's role in the systematic review, which as I noted above is extremely important. We covered topics like how to harvest search terms, which can be a lengthy and difficult process. In systematic review searching you have to undercover all the different 'official' index terms used by the databases, then you have to think of every possible synonym for your topic, and how it might be combined in phrases, etc. The second half of the day was primarily spent in a discussion of grey literature, a topic that I was particularly keen to learn more about. Grey literature is the hard to find, non-traditional literature that's generally not indexed in databases, and can include: conference proceedings, FDA reports, independent reports from specialized associations, etc. It was a long afternoon and a bit tiring. I need to go back over my notes from the entire day to refresh my memory of the topics and resources discussed.

The last morning was quite honestly something of a blur. My brain was tired (amazing what two days straight in a classroom can do to you, how did I manage as a child?), and I was looking forward to getting home and seeing Andrew. However, we still covered important topics including hand searching (reading line-by-line the indexes of particular journals of interest), and writing up the search for the methods section of the review.

All-in-all, it was completely worth it. I learned new methods, met new people, ate great food and visited a new place. I'll leave you with a few pictures of the University and surrounding area.



The Cathedral of Learning, a beautiful, towering landmark at the University of Pittsburgh.
There were a couple of Carnegie museums around the University, unfornately they all closed at 5:00 pm, so I was unable to visit any of them.
A school for the blind.
Houses in the surrounding area.
A pretty gateway to someone's home.

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