Lectured by a Nobel Prize Laureate and Returning the Favor

Being a university librarian affords me some amazing opportunities. Like the chance to attend a lecture by a Nobel Prize laureate.

Every year Arcadia University awards an honorary degree to 2 individuals at both our graduate and undergraduate commencement ceremonies. This year we honored Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, M.D., and 1985 Nobel Prize laureate Michael Brown, M.D.

Because of Dr. Brown’s special distinction, the university also invited him to deliver a lecture the day before the undergraduate ceremony in which we were to be honoring him. (I’m pretty sure it was not a pre-condition for receiving the recognition, but I can’t be certain.) His lecture was entitled How to Win a Nobel Prize and he did a delightful job of educating us audience members about the prize-winning research on blood cholesterol that earned him and collaborator Dr. Joseph Goldstein the prize for medicine or physiology.  Their work led to the development of statin drugs (e.g., Lipitor and Crestor) that are commonly prescribed today to control cholesterol levels.

Later that evening I was able to attend a reception for the 2 honorees. Despite the auspiciousness of many of our past degree recipients, receptions like these aren’t huge affairs and I often can find an opportunity to speak with them. It helps that I’m weirdly sociable for a librarian.

I arrived early, as I’m wont, and found Dr. Brown with his wife Alice (née Lapin who is a graduate of AU’s earlier incarnation, Beaver College) by themselves. Striking up a conversation about my role in the university, Dr. Brown asked me about the contemporary role of librarians and books in the internet age where so much information is readily available digitally.

So much to say, so little time. But then I am an information scientist who’s given this very issue considerable thought.

I touched upon the idea that internet research begets more of itself, meaning that scholarly articles shared online and then used from there motivates more generators of literature to share openly online. I shared about how books provide a narrative approach to a subject matter that online sources can’t possibly match.

(I didn’t get into the fact that the internet favors scientific knowledge, to his and my advantage, but not that of many social scientists and more scholars in the humanities.)

In the process of sharing, I adopted a common strategy I use when talking to people and established a first name connection with him by addressing the narrative of Michael Brown’s cholesterol research which books (electronic or print) can present and which articles simply can’t do as effectively. Time and emphasis didn’t allow me to bring in research on how users of books prefer print when reading cover to cover rather than just for reference purposes.

(Some time during our conversation Ms. Brown discretely disappeared, a phenomenon that can happen when I get going.)

I talked about how medical students who learn to do literature as taught by medical librarians I know don’t become clinicians that continue to conduct their own literature research. Their primary role is clinical, after all. But they do become better framers of research questions when working with librarians that help them conduct literature research later in their careers.

Sharing that tidbit with Michael(!) led him to comment about his observation in a clinical setting recently when he saw someone off to the side who was clearly neither physician nor intern. The individual was on a laptop searching for and sharing articles relevant to the cases the medical staff were reviewing. He raised his eyebrows when I responded that the individual might well have been a clinical librarian, i.e., a credentialed professional who participates in clinical rounds and whose responsibility is to do exactly what he witnessed.

I’m sure I managed to squeeze in more that I don’t recall anymore. We were joined by another faculty member with whom I share common medical art graduate training from another professional life of mine (see elsewhen in this blog) and we three happily and productively steered off in the direction of biomedical visualization.

The world of knowledge is large, and I should hardly begrudge Dr. Brown his unfamiliarity with the profession of library and information science. Without it I would have lost the remarkable opportunity to say I lectured a Nobel Prize laureate.

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