Reference Interviews, Data Curation, and “To Sell is Human”

I’ve had the strangest convergence of ideas that have been bouncing around in my brain the last couple of weeks.

It started with research on data curation or management as a role for Librarians. I have been on a work team investigating the feasibility of hiring a new Librarian in that sort of a position here at VCU Libraries.  It is a subject near and dear to my heart because I did a practicum with the Biomedical Informatics Core recently and became very interested in all the data and analytics coming from hospital EHR systems.  There is a real need to help with use and reuse of data from all sources, and if we think of data as an information resource like a book or journal, it makes sense to me that it is the job of a librarian to help manage data. (see David Stuart’s book Facilitating Access to the Web of Data: a Guide for Librarians)

Last week I was thinking of writing a post – “Whither the Reference Interview?”  The idea came to me because in discussions with colleagues, I realized that so many of our questions come via email, directly or through our general reference email account, and it is hard to conduct a reference interview via email.  It made me think of the reference courses I took way back in the mid-1980s at SLIS (UWO). I loved my instructor, Dr. Catherine Sheldrick Ross, who has, coincidentally written an excellent book on the subject (Conducting the Reference Interview: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians),  and I loved learning about open, closed, and neutral questions and Brenda Dervin’s sense making research.  Being a fan of mystery novels, I find the idea of figuring out what people really want to know an exciting challenge.  Of course we still get the chance for meaty searching from our contacts and referrals, but those email questions are often a problem to deal with.

Then, I came back to my office yesterday morning to find a Twitter conversation, amongst a group of #medlibs I know virtually, about data curation and the skills we need for that role. Are library schools teaching students what they need to know to take on new roles?

Finally it all came together yesterday afternoon as I was reading Daniel Pink’s new book To Sell is Human. I got so much out of Daniel Pink’s talk at MLA in 2010 and his earlier book, A Whole New Mind, so I purchased his latest book.  Plus, it seems to me that we need to learn how to sell ourselves as data managers and teachers and team members or whatever else we want to do.

I was reading the chapter “Clarity” – the capacity to  help others see their situations in fresh and more revealing ways and to identify problems they didn’t realize they had.” (p.127). and there on page 128, while reading the section “Finding the Right Problems to Solve” it hit me, our reference skills are perfect for finding out what the problems are that people need to solve. He then goes on to say that in order to sell something we need to curate information, sort it and present the relevant data, and ask questions to uncover possibilities.  So when you look at it this way, helping with data really is an extension of our skills. We don’t know or understand every article we find for a person, and while there are some librarians who can do analysis of bibliometrics, not every librarian has that skill.  So we shouldn’t all expect to be data managers or curators.

So we have a place in the non-sales selling process of all of the people we help, plus we have the non-sales selling of our reference and curation skills.  A double reason to read Pink’s book.

Of course we still need to keep our skills up to date and expand the specifics of our skill set (Health Informatics Forum Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)  or free SPSS classes anyone), but the theoretical framework is there.

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