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Personal librarians help students navigate research

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2005 - Autumn

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Second-year medical student Kurtland Ma ran into a snag while doing research last summer in Hong Kong: he couldn’t download an article on alternative HIV therapies that he’d found online. Luckily, Ma had someone to turn to—his “personal librarian” 8,000 miles away in New Haven.

That librarian was Lynn H. Sette, M.L.S., a reference librarian and one of 10 librarians at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library paired with students in medicine, in the Physician Associate Program and in the Combined Program in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences. Just as Sette had introduced herself to Ma during his medical school orientation, each of the personal librarians meets new students as they arrive, establishing librarian-student partnerships.

When Ma sought help from Sette via e-mail in July, she sent him the article he needed. Normally, said Ma, he does well on his own. “I’ve done so many PubMed/Ovid searches in the past and the website is so good that I don’t feel like I need all that much help—having a personal librarian seems more like a luxury,” Ma wrote by e-mail from Hong Kong. “I obviously didn’t expect to be asking for her help from here in Hong Kong, but now I’m starting to realize that having her is quite helpful.”

Education Services Librarian Jan Glover, M.L.S., who helped create the program nine years ago, said students often turn to their librarians when they begin third-year clinical rotations. They ask for guidance—in person or by e-mail—when they’re looking for “the perfect bit of information to answer a clinical question.” Students also ask for help with technical problems such as downloading a medication database onto a personal digital assistant.

The most common questions are about complicated literature searches. During the past year, third-year medical student Argo P. Caminis estimated that she has asked Glover for advice two or three times a week while doing research for two journal articles on adolescent sexual behavior. Glover showed Caminis how to avoid being inundated by thousands of citations on a broad topic.

“I was getting tons of hits. She helped me to focus it by the types of journals I was looking at: whether they’d been peer-reviewed, looking for literature review articles, limiting the search to recent or relevant articles. She taught me principles of research that I think were helpful to learn early on in medical school,” said Caminis, who was a co-author on an article published last spring and who will be lead author on a second. “It’s a good way to reach out to students.”