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veritasHarvard University Library Notes, For Harvard Library Staff, Number 1337 May 2007
David Osterbur

David Osterbur

Harvard University Library Notes / May 2007 / No. 1337

Interview: David Osterbur

David Osterbur completed his PhD in genetics at the University of California at Berkeley using protein and DNA techniques to study the response of Drosophila imaginal discs to the steroid hormone 20-hydroxyecdysone. Later, he completed his MSLIS at Simmons. He has extensive subject and resource knowledge gained through work at DuPont Pharmaceuticals, as the head librarian at Harvard's Biological Laboratories Library, and in his current position as access and public services librarian at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. He was interviewed for Library Notes on May 1.

LN

Your position as access and public services librarian is new for the Countway. How does your position work?

DO

Officially I'm in charge of reference, interlibrary loan, and circulation. I act quite a bit as a reference librarian. I answer a lot of questions. And I do a lot of teaching—mostly within the Medical Area, but also in Cambridge and at MIT occasionally.

I meet once a week with Zak [Isaac Kohane, director of the Countway Library] and Alexa [Alexa McCray, deputy director] in what's called a "coordinators' meeting." The meeting includes Betsy Eggleston [collection and knowledge management librarian]; Scott Podolsky, head of the Center for the History of Medicine; Doug McFarland, Countway's new head of IT services; and Joshua Parker, who's head of circulation. We discuss concerns from our different areas and bring them to Zak and Alexa, who are really inspiring people. They are fun to talk with—very open about what's going on in the library. We try to keep everybody as informed as we can—not only about what's going on within the library, but what's happening around the Medical School.

LN

How does your position relate to the overall changes at Countway in recent years?

DO

It's been a real period of transition for the library, and until Zak and Alexa were hired, it wasn't clear what was going to happen. We probably will never be back up to the staff levels that we were at at one point, but we've begun hiring again, and staff morale is high: I've got 14 great people who work for me, including two new people. Julia Whelan and Scott Lapinski, who are both in the reference department.

Julia came in with a lot of experience at the Mass. College of Pharmacy, where she was head of reference. And she's really great on the clinical side.

Scott participates as a reference librarian, but he is also our digital resource and services librarian, and he's building an institutional repository for the Medical School.

LN

Separate from the DRS?

DO

Yes. And very different from DRS. Our main interest and our main goal in building the repository is to provide access. The faculty at the Harvard Medical School publish about 160 papers a week on average, and about 27% of them are published in journals that we do not have access to. We're pushing to get this institutional repository built so that everyone can see the papers that originate in our own institution.

Most of the things that are published from here will probably end up at some point in PubMed Central, so that will be the archive. But we want to provide access as soon as we can legally provide access to those papers, and that's our main goal.

LN

Who is the force behind the repository?

DO

Alexa McCray is the main force behind it. She's really for open access and what it can do.

LN

Is Countway changing because science libraries are changing or because the situation at Harvard Medical School has changed?

DO

I think it's a little bit of both. It's not just science libraries that are changing. With the advent of so much information online, it's tempting for administrators to think that libraries have space that they don't need anymore because "everything's online."

Zak and Alexa came in with a vision of having biomedical informatics centered in the library and using the library not only for biomedical informatics but as a center for what the NIH now calls "translational research"—which entails moving from the laboratory to the bedside more quickly. They're talking about trying to make the library the center for research grants in this new area. And I think that's really a good idea because the library is really a shared space, and it can be a center for grants that require a collaborative environment.

The Countway now includes a Center for Biomedical Informatics, and, with faculty members in the Center doing research, we have essentially a research wing in the library, housed here. Part of my job is to meet every two weeks with people from the Center for Biomedical Informatics. They present their research projects and we all make comments on it, help think about new ideas. I have a PhD in genetics and a library science degree, and it brings those two together really well for me.

LN

Would you like to give your colleagues on the other side of the river a quick overview of bioinformatics?

DO

At the core, bioinformatics is the comparison of amino acid or nucleotide sequences to databases that contain those things. But it extends way beyond that, so it goes to protein structures, to molecular biology, to pure-text data-mining—to the effort to pull as much information as you can out of the text that's available to try and create new insights from the positioning of things together within that text.

LN

When you're teaching about bioinformatics, are you teaching as a librarian or as a PhD in genetics? Or both?

DO

Both. And I think those two areas work so well together because everybody says librarians like to search and everybody else likes to find, but with bioinformatics, there is such a wealth of information out there and it's put together with such complex tools that the researchers don't have time to sit down and learn those tools. Because I'm a librarian, I can show them. And because I understand as a geneticist what information they're seeking, I can bring those two areas together and make it a much more powerful tool.

LN

How does this play out in your day-to-day work in access and reference?

DO

I like to use a car-factory analogy. We have the people, the engineers, who are producing product—you know, the car. The people who ultimately drive the cars don't need to know how to build them, and so oftentimes the people who build the cars aren't very good at teaching people how to drive them. We need somebody in between. We need those people who provide service—gas station attendants, car driving teachers, and those kind of things. That's where I feel that the librarians are going to really fit in, because our job is service. We're a service organization.

LN

What are some of your current projects?

DO

We are developing a new web page that's going to have some very innovative tools on it. One is going to be a way of bypassing the SFX page that comes up every time you request an electronic resource and going directly to full text. If there's not full text there, it will go back to the choices that you originally had. It makes the first choice based on an algorithm that we've decided is the best for choosing which resource should display first. If you don't get anything, you can just hit the back button on your browser, get back to the SFX page, and make a second choice. This new SFX page has this first choice in red and all the other choices are distinct, you can see which one was already tried.

We're also building an RSS aggregator into our new web page, and our database will have choices for receiving table-of-contents RSS feeds from our listing of electronic resources. So you can go down a list, we'll have an alphabetical list of electronic resources, and you can click on a radio button and receive an RSS feed of the table of contents from the journal or RSS feeds from PubMed searches into your page once you log in.

LN

Are these changes things that you have driven?

DO

Yes. I'm having a great time here, and I think Countway is a great place to work. It's really been exciting for me to be here, and all the people that I work with are tremendous. It's a great environment.

 

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