On Wednesday, I attended a workshop for NHS library staff, led by Tim Buckley Owen, on synthesising and summarising information. The workshop involved a mixture of presentations by Tim, and hands-on, practical exercises, centred on transforming a large number of literature search results into a coherent, manageable, well-presented summary. NHS librarians are frequently required to conduct literature searches of medical databases on behalf of doctors, nurses or other NHS staff on topics related to their day-to-day work, and general practice (at least anecdotally) seems to be to export the results of such searches as emails, PDF attachments, or other similarly unstructured sets of references. Certainly this is normally what I would do. Tim made the point that email exports can look quite incoherent to the end user, as well as being difficult to navigate and giving no indication about the individual results’ relevance (beyond the fact that they were found using a certain combination of search terms). I must admit that this wasn’t something that had occurred to me previously, as usually when I do literature searches I’m more concerned with simply finding results that are useful to the requester, rather than with how the results are presented to them. However, Tim taught attendees a few simple changes that we could make to our final sets of literature search results to make them more structured, manageable and coherent to the requester. He argued that this was an important way to demonstrate the value of the NHS library service, as well as highlighting the skills of NHS librarians and making sure other NHS staff saw that librarians have their own set of important, specialist skills necessary for good patient care and the other aims of the NHS as a whole.
The first task of the day involved moving from an unstructured set of search results that looked like the digital equivalent of the above pile of papers to a neatly-organised table of references that summarised each one succinctly, and organised them according to relevance and priority, based on the aims and information needs of the individual or team requesting a literature search. We were given a list of roughly sixty literature search results, with abstracts included, and, based on the information provided, required to rank them according to a set of criteria as ‘must know’, ‘should know’, or ‘could know’. In the session, we did this in a table embedded in a Word document. However, my own preference when undertaking similar tasks would be to use reference management software such as Endnote, Zotero, Mendeley or Refworks. These all allow users to import references, move them into various folders (which could replace the ‘must know’, ‘could know’, or ‘should know’ rankings), tag the references in certain ways, and share or export the references to other users. Reference managers are slightly less flexible than a Word table, but the time saved, minimal typing required, and future benefits (such as being able to insert references from the reference manager into any later write-up and format them according to the citation style of your choice) surely outweigh this. Of course, using a reference manager requires the end user to also use one, and they may not always be prepared to do so, so this exercise conducted in the workshop was definitely not a waste of time. It was also a marvellous confidence booster in terms of encouraging attendees to get outside their comfort zones, moving from merely finding information to actually understanding the information found, summarising it, and making judgements about its relevance. Given that a lot of attendees expressed anxiety about fully comprehending the (sometimes highly technical) medical literature that they were often asked to find, this aspect of the task was especially welcome.
We moved in the later half of the day from sythesising information to writing informative summaries. In the first of two exercises, we were given an article (with title and abstract visible), and asked to summarise it in a single paragraph, including a sentence or two indicating its relative relevance to a hypothetical literature search requester’s topic of research. The final exercise involved doing something similar, but drawing on nine articles, rather than a single one, summarising each in one or two sentences so that this summary formed a coherent narrative leading the reader through the available literature so that they could prioritise the articles that would be most relevant to them. I’m someone who really enjoys writing, and has never found it difficult, whatever the context. I’m a lifelong journaller, on paper as a child and online on blogs later on, I spent many years as a journalist, and I also did a PhD, so I’ve had a lot of practice at writing in a variety of registers and for a wide range of purposes. However, I have always struggled to write succinctly, and tend to write as if upper word limits are just a suggestion. (You can probably tell just by reading this blog!) For this reason, although I had little difficulty writing summaries of the assigned articles using the information provided, cutting it down to a single paragraph or a single sentence was like pulling teeth! I found this aspect of the workshop absolutely valuable, because it forced me to reflect on the actual information needs of the (hypothetical) user and put myself in their shoes. There would have been no point in writing a long, waffly summary that made their task harder: its purpose was to guide them through the available literature so that they could prioritise articles that were most relevant to their research and make the best use of their limited time. What was the crucial information they needed about each article? What could be left out? What did they really need to know? Keeping all those questions in find helped me focus and write a simple, readable, and, most importantly, brief summary.
Tim’s final presentation focused on other ways we could improve our literature search results and make them easier to navigate for the requester. These were mostly cosmetic changes, such as making the typeface readable (rather than sticking with Word’s default), adding NHS letterhead and/or that of your library, and writing a clear, concise covering email summarising the work done on the search, the results found, and any categorising/organising we may have done with them. These were all intended to highlight our specialist skills as NHS librarians, the important role of the library within the NHS, and the library’s identity as an integral part of the NHS. While I’m not sure I’ll be implementing all of his suggestions, all were welcome, and I’m very much looking forward to the follow-up session happening slightly later in the month.