ADAPTING A NEW TECHNOLOGY TO THE ACADEMIC MEDICAL LIBRARY: PERSONAL DIGITAL ASSISTANTS.
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professionals, librarians are concerned with staying ahead of the technology
curve. Whenever a new information technology emerges, librarians invariably
appropriate it and adapt it to the library setting. This paper describes the
efforts of the University of Southern California (USC) Norris Medical Library
to exploit the recent explosion of interest in personal digital assistants
(PDAs) to support the information needs of its user population. When confronted
with an innovation as profound as the PDA, information specialists are
challenged on a number of levels. The first requirement is to master the new
technology. Next comes teaching others how to use it. Finally, information
specialists must develop or provide PDA-deliverable content for the user
population. The author of this paper accomplished the first goal, while the
second and third objectives were achieved through collaboration with other
library staff and with other departments of the USC School of Medicine. In the
spring of 2000, the Norris Medical Library sponsored a “Medical Informatics
Seminar” on the topic of PDAs. The USC health sciences community responded
overwhelmingly. To a standing-room-only crowd of approximately seventy people,
the presenters demonstrated the most basic functions of handheld computers with
some mention of medical applications. The audience included students, faculty,
and staff, who displayed high levels of interest in the topic by raising
numerous questions during the course of the seminar. The success of the seminar
and the enthusiasm level of all participants was a strong incentive for the
library to start a program devoted to PDAs and mobile computing. In the summer
of 2000, the library established a Palm User’s Interest Group with various
departments in the School of Medicine. Members included third- and fourth-year
medical students, School of Medicine faculty, and staff from the office of the
dean for student affairs. From the library’s perspective, this group proved
beneficial on a number of levels. Of primary concern was the desire not to
duplicate the efforts of other departments in this area or to operate at
cross-purposes. For instance, one faculty member managed a Website that
provided instructional materials and schedules for first- and second-year
students. Although he had already begun to post PDA-related links to this
Website, it was agreed that the library would absorb the majority of the
responsibility for this area. The interest group served as a mini focus group,
allowing the library to monitor the interests of the different segments of the
Norris Medical Library user population, to gauge levels of proficiency, and to
pick up new ideas and tips. The group also helped to advertise and promote the
activities of the library to the medical school community. By spearheading an
effort to incorporate the new technology of PDAs into the medical school’s
culture, the library also increased its visibility in the community as a whole.
The ubiquity of the Internet made it a convenient and logical place to begin a
project involving both user education and delivery of services. From the Norris
Medical Library home page, a site was created for medical applications for
PDAs. Initially, this site was divided into three sections: devices,
applications, and a section entitled Tips, Links and Discussion Groups. The
section about devices provided links to the major manufacturers of PDAs based
on their operating systems (PalmOS or WinCE). The section about applications
provided links to add-on programs to enhance PDA performance. These links were
further subdivided into general applications, medical applications, and games.
The third section contained text authored by members of the medical school
community, along with links to other sites devoted to PDAs and medicine. The
Norris Medical Library’s PDA Website is reorganized and reevaluated on a
continuing basis. New links are added, and others are deleted, but the basic
organization remains the same. This site will also serve as a platform to
launch PDA-deliverable content to the medical school community. When first
initiated, the Website was highlighted in the Spotlight section of the
library’s homepage, so that visitors to the top-level page would find a
directional icon to take them directly to the PDA site.* Coinciding with the
development of the PDA Website, the Norris Medical Library also offered a
workshop during the fall 2000 semester on basic and medical applications for
PDAs. Following a demonstration rather than a hands-on format, the class began
by discussing built-in applications, such as the calendar, address book, memo
pad, and to-do list. The second half of the class compared and contrasted
medical applications. Covered topics included patient-tracking software and
medical and drug information resources. Rounding out the curriculum was a
discussion of systems-related issues, such as performing synchronization
operations, adding programs, and working with Web browsers (such as AvantGo).
Attendance levels at the workshops varied from three to twelve attendees.
Knowledge levels of the attendees varied as well, from complete novice to savvy
users. This variety led the library to consider offering two courses, instead
of one. The first would be geared to new users of PDAs, and the second would be
devoted to more experienced users and would focus more heavily on medical
applications. The PalmPilot emulator is a valuable tool for both the
development and implementation of this class. Offered free of charge through
the Palm, Inc., Website,† the emulator software mimics the hardware of PalmOS
platform devices. Once loaded on a computer drive, the emulator is a valuable
teaching tool, particularly when used in conjunction with a computer screen
projector. On the down side, the emulator can be a bit temperamental and prone
to crashing. Despite these drawbacks, it is an excellent educational device to
demonstrate applications for the Palm. The Norris Medical Library continues to
pursue an aggressive agenda regarding PDAs. Recently, the library purchased
Palm VIIx® PDAs for each member of the professional staff, and many of the
librarians use the wireless Internet capabilities of the devices. Additionally,
all those who were issued PDAs are required to synchronize their calendars to
the library’s systemwide calendaring system. The library’s goal is to
facilitate the integration of handheld technology into the culture of the
university’s health sciences campus. Library personnel’s use of PDAs in the
course of campuswide activities should help promote this goal. Beyond the
productivity benefits for the library, the staff believes this effort will
improve the librarians’ visibility as proactive, technologically savvy members
of the medical school community. Regionally, the Norris Medical Library also seeks
to increase the knowledge level of other medical librarians in this exciting
area of information technology. Plans to further this aim include a
continuing-education program for the Medical Library Group of Southern
California and Arizona. The library’s PDA Web page has also been beneficial in
getting the word out to other information professionals, not only in Southern
California, but also nationally. Information professionals who browse randomly
have begun contacting the library via email and telephone, seeking advice on
the development of PDA programs for their libraries. The Norris Medical
Library’s commitment to handheld technology provides an example to other
libraries of a process for exploiting a new technology for the benefit of both
the library and its users. Because PDA technology is in a constant state of
flux, one may be tempted to adopt a wait-and-see approach before embarking on
such a program; however, to do so runs the risk of falling behind the medical
community. PDAs have the potential to revolutionize not only the world of
libraries, but also the entire world of information technology.
ADAPTING A NEW TECHNOLOGY TO THE ACADEMIC MEDICAL LIBRARY: PERSONAL DIGITAL ASSISTANTS.
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