Keeping Up with the Information Onslaught

Organized archive with ring binders and woman searching for files in the database using a laptop

Guest post by Helen-Ann Brown Epstein, MLS, MS, AHIP, FMLA, informationist at the Health Sciences Library Virtua in Mt Laurel, New Jersey.

I am of the generation that fondly remembers when the comedian George Carlin mused about our obsession with stuff.

“That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff,” he said. “That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff.”

And having a place for our stuff, he observes, allows us to relax, whether we’re at home or traveling.

But what about the stuff that matters to us as health information professionals? How can we sustainably organize all that while keeping up with the literature for both our customers and ourselves?

The information explosion keeps creating more and more stuff. Currently, PubMed has more than 29 million citations, but they’re not stopping. On average, NLM adds about 1.1 million citations per year to PubMed. That’s nearly 92,000 citations per month or over 21,000 citations per week. Who can keep up with that?!

Once upon a time, we used index card files of relevant citations, clustered by MeSH or our favorite terms, to organize key references. Sometimes, we ripped out relevant articles or photocopied them, building stacks of stuff we promised ourselves we’d read.

Today, online databases make it possible to retrieve smaller, more precise results sets. We’re also able to create online alerts focused on special topics or specific journals. We can then store these citations in My NCBI accounts that can be exported into bibliographic citation management software. Some of these software packages even allow us to download PDFs, add notes to them, and then share them with colleagues.

We’ve come a long way.

In my everyday life as a health sciences librarian, I work solo for a large three-hospital system. My virtual library frees me up to make house calls to help my customers set up their own current awareness alerts that will deliver the important literature and key tables of contents to their inboxes. I also use my visits to encourage them to setup their own My NCBI accounts and to leverage the power of bibliographic software to manage their citations. And I talk about how crucial it is to decide how to best organize their literature and other sources of information at the start of any project, not later, when the volume gets too big to manage.

As part of the first cohort of the Medical Library Association Research Training Institute, I’m learning from experience the benefits of that last bit of wisdom. Following the advice of our expert faculty, I have created my alerts and determined the headings for my collections of citations. Though I’m at the early stages, I expect taking these important first steps will help ensure that I’m not missing relevant articles as they come out and might even help me unearth applicable research from disciplines I had not previously considered. I also expect to more readily find saved articles more quickly when I need them and possibly uncover connections I had not previously seen. At minimum, I know that building a collection of resources from the beginning will give me the freedom to get to articles when I’m ready for them, knowing they’ll be there waiting.

Ultimately though, by establishing now how I will manage the information, I’ve discovered that George Carlin was right. Now that I have a “house” for my stuff, I can relax. Instead of stressing out over where that stuff is going to go, I can focus on the research, knowing that I have a system in place to keep my resources organized and to keep me on track as I evaluate online journal club formats and their role in an interprofessional patient care team.

How do you keep your information stuff organized? I welcome your comments and questions.

headshot of Helen-Ann Brown EpsteinHelen-Ann Brown Epstein, MLS, MS, AHIP, FMLA, currently serves as the informationist at the Health Sciences Library Virtua in Mt Laurel, New Jersey. She spent the previous 22 years as a clinical librarian at Weill Cornell Medical Library. Helen-Ann is active in the Medical Library Association and has authored or co-authored several articles on medical librarianship.

One thought on “Keeping Up with the Information Onslaught

  1. It’s escalating, but it’s not a new phenomenon. Isaac Asimov wrote an essay called “The Sound of Panting,” in which he described the difficulty of keeping up with The Literature in his field of biochemistry. The date? June, 1955.* I wonder what he would thought of the internet and the plethora** of journals, web sites, discussion groups, etc., that we have now.

    And I’m sure that Ashurbanipal went around his library muttering “What am I going to do with all these clay tablets?”

    **And I chose that word carefully.

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