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Social media for all librarians

Posted by Editor on August 16, 2010

by Dean Giustini

Page(s) 73-75  |  Published by the Canadian Health Libraries Association

Gordon and Leslie Diamond Health Care Centre, 2775 Laurel Street, Floor 2, Vancouver, BC V5Z 1M9, Canada; and School of Library, Archival and Information Studies (SLAIS), University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z1, Canada (


All health librarians need basic web 2.0 skills

Welcome to a new information technology column called “Social media for health librarians” for the JCHLA/JABSC. Over the next year or so, I plan to write about social media and the effects of Web 2.0 tools on our information practices. I hope you find the column a more casual read (i.e., less academic) than previous teaching and learning columns. My goal is to engage health librarians about the tools and trends of Web 2.0 and to raise topics for debate with your peers. Feel free to engage me in debate also. E-mail your questions and send suggested topics such as medicine 2.0, health 2.0, or even health librarian 2.0. For now, let’s leave all of the Web 2-point-ohs for later. (See Appendix A for quick definitions of these terms.)

Let’s begin by talking about time — what other health librarians tell me is the single largest barrier to their use of social media. As a health librarian who follows social media very closely, I realize that time is a significant barrier for many of you and that these barriers also prevent appropriate evaluation of tools. I also realize that if it comes down to spending your collections budgets or evaluating Twitter, there is no contest — collections come first. But Twitter’s rise in particular reminds me of the hoopla around Google Scholar when it was first released; do you recall how many librarians spoke out against using it 1–2? Would any of us now deny that Google Scholar is extremely valuable in the health librarian’s toolkit, indeed any librarian’s toolkit? The realization that Twitter, like Google Scholar, is valuable is certain to come with time.

Social networking presents its own quirks for health librarians — and a tendency to drain more of our time. And the ruse is that to use social media well, you need to build a network of people to create the network effect. The network effect (Metcalfe’s law) states that the more people you have in your network, the more useful it becomes 3. On Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, I follow ∼1000 people. I can’t follow all of these people closely but am getting to know about 5% of my network. I follow people from around the world and anyone who can teach me something. If someone is not providing value to me, I quietly stop following them.

I am regularly asked how I monitor so many social tools while maintaining a full-time position at the UBC Biomedical Branch Library. How do I find time to evaluate the tools? I’m also asked what my opinion is on social media’s long-term prospects. Is social networking a passing fad? And even — as a busy academic health librarian at Vancouver General Hospital, why do I blog and tweet?

For me, social media is primarily about two things: lifelong learning and promoting the profession. I firmly believe health librarians should be thinking about the implications of social media in the information age but also using it to tell our stories. Moreover, I think social media is a natural ally for lifelong learners. My use of social media directs my learning every day, and I see it as part of understanding the digital landscape. Our information practices in the digital age should take into account core librarianship competencies but within an environment that includes social media.

Many of you already use social media and collaborate with users online. Please share your ideas. You might even author blogs or use Twitter to network with colleagues. In 2010, it is obvious we have reached a critical mass of social media users in CHLA / ABSC 4. The Association Web site is now interactive and several members contribute to the Board blog — maybe not as regularly as I would like, but it’s a start.

In the same way that Google is now accepted, social media has reached a level of quiet acceptance by information professionals. Have you discerned the slow shift towards the acceptance of social media in health libraries? Within the Medical Library Association (MLA), librarians work through modules to learn about social media 5. While tools such as Twitter and Second Life may be peripheral for a while, other tools seem to be here to stay. Take a look at some of the recent social media research in MEDLINE; recently, I noticed that several well-designed studies have been published 6–15. Clinicians around the world are evaluating social media, and the evidence-base is growing.

Social media represents a new domain of expertise for health librarians. Are the collaboration and information-sharing skills of Web 2.0 critical for our future? I believe that they are. Social media skills are not as important as maintaining our intellectual orientation or the work we do to organize collections and services. But I believe we should seize opportunities to develop media competencies and find a way to connect them to evidence-based practices. New evidence suggests that social media has an impact on our users’ ability to engage in lifelong learning 16–20. Isn’t that reason enough to take social media seriously?

Health professionals are well-positioned to use social media. Even if they do not yet see the immediate value of doing so, we can find ways to highlight relevant technologies and be a resource for health professionals. It might be interesting to survey how many health librarians in Canada get reference questions about social media on a regular basis (Appendix B): What is Web 2.0 and why as a physician should I care? As a nurse, should I use Twitter? I hear Google tracks my searches — is this true? I am new to social networking: can you help direct me to some basic information?

As an early adopter and blogger, I am often asked for my opinion about social media, and this has led to my involvement in curriculum development. I sit on a UBC Faculty of Medicine committee looking at how to integrate social media into undergraduate programs 21. The School of Library, Archival and Information Studies now offers a three-unit course on social media, which I designed and teach 22. I can’t imagine doing my job without this expertise. It is vital for every health librarian to determine how these tools might fit into their practice; not every new gadget or tool has to be adopted to be effective in the provision of health information services.

In conclusion, you’ll find that social media can be both fun and useful. Every day, on my computer dashboard, I multitask, share, tweet, and scan ideas all day long. Between consultations and meetings with physicians, I read Twitter. Social media is critical to my practice as a 21st century information professional. This is a time where all health librarians and health professionals can raise their awareness of social media and determine how it might affect patient care. All health librarians should have basic social media competencies and be able to answer questions from their users — and perhaps even provide advice in the future. That’s just part of what we will discuss in the year ahead.

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