Today’s Conference on Informationists


Today I attended a conference sponsored by Elsevier, entitled “The Informationist: Collaboration between Scientists and Librarians to Support Informatics Research.” It was held here in Washington DC and drew a crowd of about 80 – 100, largely medical librarians with a significant number of other academic and government librarians. (Christina Pikas did some real time reporting on it which you can read over on her blog at

I thought the name was a bit misleading as it didn’t just focus on “informatics research” or for that matter, research of any type — it also got into the role of librarians in clinical medicine. Still, I found it time well spent. The Elsevier folks said the presentations will be made available, but I don’t have details on that yet.

For me, the most relevant sessions were the morning sessions, which dealt with informatics and the role of (what i’m going to call) embedded medical librarians. Ellen Detlefsen of the U. of Pittsburgh offered several definitions of “informatics” and its subfields (medical informatics, bioinformatics, public health informatics etc.). She also proposed a distinction between the terms “clinical medical librarian” and “informationist” based on comparing their educational background, supervisory/reporting relationships, and salary levels. She was followed by Ed Shortliffe of the American Medical Informatics Association, who offered further insights into informatics, including the AMIA’s definition. Shortliffe also distinguished between biomedical informatics and health information technology — as I understand it, the former focuses on the use of information in research, while the latter refers to information systems that support healthcare delivery.

The third morning speaker was Annette Williams, representing the biomedical library at Vanderbilt University. She told the story of the initiation and development of Vanderbilt’s embedded library services, with insights too numerous to repeat them all here. In initiating the service, she emphasized the importance of the librarians getting out of the library, developing an understanding of the clinical environment, and building relationships. Later in the day, she added that the Vanderbilt librarians don’t only serve in clinical care teams — they also participate in the research programs.

One thing i think all in the conference agreed on was the word “partnership”. Ellen Detlefsen emphasized this a couple times: that the librarians can, and must be, equal partners in the team — whether the mission is clinical care or research. This means going beyond traditional notions and roles as a support service.

All in all, it was a day well spent. I may have some more comments on it as the ideas percolate!


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