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An informationist competencies matrix or skills pyramid
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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 24 January 2017


See also Clinical librarianship | Embedded librarianship | Evidence-based library and information practice (EBLIP) | Health informatics | Information technology topics

" is unacceptable in this "information age" for medical information retrieval to remain in its current neglected and disorderly state, a poor relation in the family of biomedical research and clinical practice. The concept of the informationist is an idea whose time has come." — Davidoff & Florance, Ann Int Med, 2000.

Informationists, also called information specialists in context, refers to library and information professionals who provide information services to health professionals in context. This contextual professional may or may not be embedded into clinical care on hospital wards or health research labs. In the InFo model, health librarians' knowledge and skills are supplemented by clinical training and considerable knowledge in health research - which they then bring to the clinical team. As defined by Detlefsen (2002), an informationist is a clinical information professional with clinical and/or scientific qualifications gained either through graduate education or experience. Starting points for these positions could be clinicians who possess specialist skills in medical or health informatics or medical librarians gaining additional skills and qualifications to enable them to work on an equal footing with health professionals.

The term informationist should not be confused with informaticist (or even the rarely-used informationalist). However, some informationists possess bioinformatics skills and may use either position title. At least two university libraries - at Stanford and the University of Washington - there are information professionals who provide bioinformatics support but do so without an MLIS degree or its equivalent. Rather, they qualify for their position by possessing a PhD in a related scientific area. The library and information science academic Nunzia B. Giuse at Vanderbilt is a key figure in researching the informationist paradigm as is Julie J McGowan, the Director Emeritus, Ruth Lilly Medical Library.

In their seminal 2000 editorial, Davidoff & Florance suggested that physicians should delegate their information needs to informationists in the way they delegate other work. They propose a credentialed role for librarians that would combine clinical and information retrieval skills. Some health librarians express concern that the informationist model threatens the future of health librarianship while others say that it augers the future. As of 2013, both models seem to be widely offered in North America.

In 2013, the U.S. Library of Congress published Clinical medical librarians: an annotated bibliography or review of the journal literature discussing the role of library and information professionals known as clinical medical librarians. According to the report, the "...bibliography addresses the dialogue that has ensued since the publication of the Davidoff-Florance editorial with regard to both the merits and applicability of their concept, including specific examples of librarians working in hospitals and in medical research as informationists".

Duties of the clinical informationist

  • Rounds with clinical teams, participates in morning reports; responds to expressed or anticipated information needs
  • Performs expert searches of medical literature to answer questions and address issues related to patient care
  • Provides individualized, point of need instruction to residents and students on database searching
  • Presents topics of interest to the clinical team (e.g. forming a research question, expert search strategies)
  • Sets up current awareness services to keep staff current developments in expressed or anticipated areas of interest
  • Reads, evaluates, summarizes, and highlights relevant points from the literature for the team

Key websites & video

Informationist Victoria Goode at Johns Hopkins University "Welch Library": Difference Between Literature Review vs. Systematic Review

Patient-centered librarianship

Informationists seem to follow in a long line of patient-centered models of providing library services in the hospital clinic and which date back to the 1970s. For example, clinical librarianship works along similar notions of providing information when and where it is needed. However, the main purpose of the informationist is to integrate library resources and clinical expertise into patient care. Despite the pressure to deliver services from "within the library", many health librarians who venture into clinical areas and function as a part of patient care teams do so without an official title. In the past, these information pioneers worked to overcome any deficits they had in medical knowledge by trying to bring unique problem-solving skills to the health team. Many of them simply called themselves medical librarians. Whatever their title, their primary goal was to improve the clinical team's understanding of information and satisfy any of their complex information needs. These ideals exist today in a various of medical and health library settings.

Evidence-based research questions

See also Evidence-based health care

The question of how informationists can be effective, and in what settings are they most effective, is an important one in an era of evidence-based practice. Further, how do they compare to traditional health librarians in their ability to provide these services and support? Rankin et al (2008) ask many of these questions in their study: What is the best use of an informationist's time? What information needs are most effectively anticipated clinically? What is the best ratio of health librarians to clinicians and researchers? How much time is needed to evaluate an informationist program or service? What is the cost-benefit ratio for these services?

In 2012, the informationist concept is catching on, but to understand more about why this is happening, what does an informationist do? Describe a typical day of work. What is the difference between an informationist and embedded librarianship? Is the informationist label a ‘sexier’ name for the embedded librarian, or do credentials make the difference? How do users respond to the informationist’s/embedded librarian’s service? How do new tools such as portable, mobile devices play into the work life of the informationist or embedded librarian? How can informationists/embedded librarians serve to meet information services of all users if their work is concentrated on a select team? Also, if the informationist/embedded librarian leaves or is away, who fills the role in his/her absence? Considering the changes taking place in a library’s physical space (more information in electronic format, print books and journals placed in storage, reconfiguring former stack space into user spaces, etc.), does the work of informationists/embedded librarians highlight library services or replace it?

Canadian context

The informationist debate among health librarians has taken place mostly in the United States and within the MLA - Medical Library Association (U.S.). A review of discussions on the MLA and CHLA/ABSC listservs (and conference reports) suggests this debate is primarily American. That said, CHLA/ABSC has referred to the informationist model in the context of other information trends such as clinical librarianship and the work of Joanne Gard Marshall. There are few (or no) precedents for using the title 'informationist' in Canada though McKibbon and Bayley (2004) have described their work similarly. Soon after the Annals editorial appeared, Canadian Patricia Fortin, then working as a clinical librarian at Riverview hospital in British Columbia, said: "... although I could do summaries of the literature for some of the questions I receive and/or identify, I would not feel entirely comfortable doing this without more of a clinical background, statistical knowledge, and/or very well-honed critical appraisal skills. This is because what I write could greatly impact patient care. Clearly, some research into this paradigm in the Canadian context is needed." Fortin P. CHAT re: are you an informationist? Message to: MEDLIB-L email discussion list. 2000 Jun 27.


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