The world is not changed by those who stand ready. The world is changed by those who act, who shape, who reach — not when asked but when necessary.
R. David Lankes, ILEAD U Keynote, February 2010
Last week I promoted a public library initiative of extraordinary consequence: librarians taking the lead to engage the information needs within their communities to educate younger citizens in civic practice and increase voter turnout in local elections. David Lankes commented that the idea was true to the roots of librarianship and a means of enhancing communities and their say in governance.
A recent essay in the New England Journal of Medicine brought to mind another significant need and potential for participatory librarianship.
In Untangling the Web — Patients, Doctors, and the Internet, Drs. Pamela Hartzband and Jerome Groopman describe the Internet’s profound effects on clinical practice. Clinicians now have instant access to treatment guidelines, evidence-based analyses and research. Patients also have access to information that used to be communicated personally and contextually by medical professionals. They’re flooded with information from health advocacy sites discretely created by pharmaceutical and health-product companies as well as remedies and advice from self-described doctors, scientists and professors. This has upsides and downsides.
The public needs help categorizing, assessing and contextualizing medical information available on the Internet. Librarians could be powerful allies to the medical community in this regard.
An initiative of this magnitude probably could not (and arguably should not) be undertaken and maintained by even our largest public, academic or medical library. It could, however, be managed by a National Public Library Corporation to help leverage the talent and coordinate the contributions of librarians throughout the country.
My brain is buzzing with ideas for what a project like this could do, though I’ll keep them to myself. This stuff is best left to experts. Here’s what I can say with confidence:
- The need is sigificant, as is the threat of harm from people relying on bogus (or unduly biased) health and medical information.
- The impact of a trusted public resource to help categorize and contextualize this type of information would be extraordinary — literally a matter of life and death for some.
- Working in close collaboration with the medical, scientific and legal professions in such a prominent endeavor would elevate librarianship in the eyes of the library community, the public and other information professionals.