T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T     N O V E M B E R   – D E C E M B E R  2005


by Cindy Clark

Many a research team at NIH could probably use another knowledgeable person — perhaps someone to perform complex searches in targeted databases or to help with projects like protocol development. Informationists from the NIH Library are filling that role, working as adjuncts on NIH research teams.

An informationist* is a professional librarian with extensive training in a specific subject area — such as chemistry, immunology, or technology transfer. Through the NIH Library, informationists provide personalized information services that break the usual bounds of librarian services — they become active members of the teams they are assisting. Informationists fulfill their assignments not only in person but also via e-mail, BlackBerry® or Palm® hand held, fax, or telephone, as needed, to groups located beyond the NIH campus.

As NIH Library Director Suzanne Grefsheim explained at a recent gathering at the Library of Congress, "Informationists need to know more than just how to search PubMed®. They need to know anatomy, physiology, and the specific specialty of the groups with whom they work. Ideally, they need to be both an information scientist and a subject specialist."  The 14 informationists now on staff at the NIH Library are involved in 28 different groups at NIH. Following are three representative profiles.


*The term "informationist" was proposed in "The Informationist: A New Health Profession?"  in Annals of Internal Medicine (F. Davidoff, V. Florance, 132: 996, 2000). Two years later, the Medical Library Association convened at NLM to discuss the role of the informationist or "librarian-in-context."  And recently, the NIH Library's informationists participated in a presentation at the Library of Congress on the "embedded librarian."  Today, these three terms are often used interchangeably.


Informationist Diane Cooper meets frequently with mentor Alejandro "Alex" Ayala, an endocrine clinician with NICHD, in his office, at the whiteboard, or via e-mail. Cooper also provides informationist services to several endocrinology groups at NIH and to clinicians in the Indian Health Service located throughout the United States.


Work in Clinical Settings

Diane Cooper received her Master of Science in Library Science (MSLS) and is credentialed by the Academy for Health Information Professionals. Her experience is in the field of health services. In addition to taking classes required of informationists — Principles and Practices of Clinical Research and Ethics of Human Subject Research — Cooper has also taken classes in immunology and endocrinology.

She has been working with components of the Inter-institute Endocrinology Program (including NICHD's Developmental Endocrinology Branch, Pediatric Endocrinology Branch, and Gynecology Consult Service and NIDDK's Clinical Endocrinology Branch) for almost two years.

A grateful Alejandro Ayala, an NICHD endocrinologist, especially values the time Cooper spends researching and critically appraising the ever-increasing volumes of online biomedical information. Her work, he said, "complements and scrutinizes our work. It is a very important safety mechanism in times when physicians and scientists are faced with a remarkable amount of information and pressured by time constraints."

Cooper notes that questions demanding additional research often come up during the usual course of making rounds. She cites the following as an example: What is the normal response of aldosterone to the ACTH infusion test? (ACTH is a pituitary hormone that stimulates the adrenal cortex to produce cortisol and aldosterone. It is mostly used as a diagnostic test for adrenal insufficiency, but there are fewer data on the normative values of aldosterone response to ACTH.) Are there any studies comparing normal subjects with patients with adrenal insufficiency? 

She has learned that what appear on the surface to be easy questions usually involve time-consuming searching and synthesis of the literature. In the above example, she was able to identify three studies that answered the clinicians' questions. 

Cooper is also responsible for creating a nationwide virtual informationist service for the Indian Health Service (IHS). Her IHS clients are located at more than 300 sites in 35 states.

To identify who needed informationist services and what their priorities were, Cooper conducted or collaborated on three surveys within a six-month period. She determined that the primary users of the service are the clinicians in American Indian and Alaska Native hospitals and health-care facilities. She also learned that their greatest needs are for clinical protocol information and patient health-care education materials at the point of service.

Cooper provides the needed services to the IHS clinical staff by answering questions via e-mail and at websites and through articles published in The IHS Primary Care Provider and the IHS OB/GYN Newsletter. She also attends conferences to meet clients face-to-face.     n

Pam Sieving, the NIH Library's first-hired informationist, works with NEI staff, the CC Tracheotomy Consult Service, and the editor of the journal ORL-Head and Neck Nursing.

Work at Home and Abroad

Pam Sieving joined the staff at the NIH Library as its first informationist. She holds masters degrees in linguistics and in library science and is the former director of library services in the department of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the University of Michigan. Sieving's clients include NEI and the CC Tracheotomy Consult Service. Her two main clients in NEI are the retina and genetics groups.

Sieving attends NEI cinical conferences and consult meetings. She reports on such subjects as the social implications for children with certain diseases, economic impacts, literature reviews, animal models, portfolio reviews, and reports to Congress. She also assists with the creation of search strategies and alert services. Much of her work involves searching for evidence-based medicine, and she is currently working with others on a systematic review of complementary and alternative therapies for ocular surface disease.

According to Emily Chew, deputy director of the Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Research, Sieving "has conducted incredibly comprehensive searches for both protocol development and manuscript preparation."  She's also helped train NEI fellows on how best to avail themselves of library services.

Sieving was also a part of a U.S. contingent, including some NEI staff, that traveled to three cities in India earlier this year to explore opportunities for collaborative vision research. Her expertise revolved around facilitating communications, enhancing access to information resources, and enhancing the use of evidence-based medicine.

In the CC Tracheotomy Consult Service, Sieving helped create evidence-based guidelines for tracheotomy patient care. She attends rounds with a physician, a speech therapist, a respiratory therapist, a social worker, and a wound-management nurse.

Recently, Sieving began working with Susan Rudy, an NIDCD research nurse practitioner and editor of ORL-Head and Neck Nursing. Sieving provides editorial support including searching for quotations for editorials, editing references, and analyzing articles as part of the peer-review process.     n


Doug Joubert (left) plumbs databases with CIT's MSCL lab chief Peter Munson and systems analyst Jennifer Barb.

Work in Bioinformatics

Doug Joubert has a Master of Library Information Science degree and is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Biotechnology from the University of Maryland University College, headquartered in Adelphi, Md. Joubert's interest in technology made him a good fit for working with a group from the CIT Mathematical and Statistical Computing Laboratory (MSCL), led by lab chief Peter Munson. Joubert was tapped to assist with bioinformatics on a trial basis. The trial was extended, and Joubert has been the group's informationist for almost a year, spending about 50 percent of his work time on data analysis for MSCL.

Joubert's primary project, Munson said in an interview, is to organize and further explore the potential relevance of the genes that emerge in microarray studies. Investigators can "wind up with tens of hundreds of new leads for genes,"  Munson said; the informationist can then follow through, using automated library tools to ferret out the relevant literature on any given collection of genes and evaluate the quality of evidence supporting the investigator's study.

"If it's true in yeast," Munson mused, "it might be true in cancer." 

To be most effective in his projects with MSCL, Joubert said that he learned the basics of Linux, UNIX®, and PERL. Tools that he frequently uses include NCBI databases such as Entrez Gene, Entrez Protein, AmiGo, Expression Analysis Systematic Explorer (EASE), MedMiner, MatchMiner, MILANO, and Ingenuity Pathways Analysis®. For keeping up with innovations and trends in biotechnology, Joubert says he can turn to over 60 special interest groups in biology, medicine, genes and genetics, and proteins and proteomics at NIH.  He also participates in journal and book clubs of the Association for Computing Machinery and the Medical Library Association.n


To contact NIH informationists, visit the NIH website .

Excerpts of informationists' interactions with clinical and basic research teams are presented in a 13-minute documentary, "Expert Searching at the NIH,"  produced by the NIH Library and MAPB for the 2003 Medical Library Association conference. Copies of the CD for staff use or presentations are available on request.

For more information, contact Susan Whitmore (301) 496-1157 or by e-mail
or Suzanne Grefsheim at (301) 496-2448 or by e-mail.


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