Friday, May 20, 2005

My Gig at MLA

While Alice was in Cleveland, and George was off somewhere (Washington, DC, I think) with the IFLA/OCLC Fellows, I was in San Antonio at the Medical Library Association conference. I participated in a panel presentation for the final plenary session of the conference--so there were "only" 600 or so people in the audience instead of the 2000+ at the early conference plenary.

My co-panelists were Anurag Acharya, principal engineer, Google Scholar, and Jonathan Handler, physician at the Washington Hospital Center and Associate Professor of Clinical Emergency Medicine, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

No slouches here, I tell you. I had to preface my remarks by saying, unlike my co-panelists, I don't actually make anything.

I spoke first about the characteristics of people under 35 who are staff in libraries and who are served by libraries and used Marc Prensky's "digital natives, digital immigrants" meme to frame my 25 minutes.

Anurag spoke next about--what else?--Google Scholar. Now, I don't know what ideas you all have about the motives of the people who work at Google but I can tell you that Anurag is an idealist. He began his presentation by saying that the goal of GS was to provide the best possible scholarly search experience. He wasn't claiming that this goal had been achieved--just that this was the goal. And clearly, he believes that expanding access to scholarship can only benefit everyone, scholar or not, which I wholeheartedly agree with. In fact, Anurag referred to something I'd written about this here back in November.

He closed with this quote from Vannevar Bush's thought piece "As We May Think", "Mendel's concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential."

Amazingly, Google Scholar has exactly two people working on it, and as far as I could tell, this means both the technical work and the laborious work of negotiating with publishers for content.

Jon Handler gave a really interesting presentation on a medical informatics system that he had a hand in developing--in his spare time when not being a professor, an emergency physician, a dad and bow tie aficionado. When you read about the system which is called Azyxxi you may feel as I do--that anyone working in a large organization would love to have access to such a robust comprehensive information tool. It did occur to me while I listened to Jon describe all the disparate forms of content brought together in one search interface--using simple off-the-shelf software--that we maybe make the federated search issue way too complicated. If Azyxxi can bring together bib records, test results, echocardiograms, x-rays, clinicians' notes, patient records, MRIs AND require absolutely no training to use...what do Jon and his colleagues know about data architecture and delivery that we don't?

I most often give presentations as the sole speaker and I must say it was fun being on a panel--especially as my co-panelists were such smart, interesting people. Linda Walton, Associate Director, Galter Health Sciences Library, Northwestern U, was the clever person who put the panel together.

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