By Lynne Raughley
One of the evergreen messages the library delivers to the university’s students is “The library is here to help.” Occasionally, a perplexed student asks, “Help with what?”
It’s not a difficult question, or it shouldn’t be, but in truth the ways the library “helps” is forever evolving. These days students often find the books, articles, and research materials they need without seeking a librarian’s help (though it remains true that librarians can help make searching more efficient, precise, and certain to yield high-quality, not-fake information.)
But the raw materials for scholarly and creative endeavors now comprise much more than text-based resources, and the library has expanded its offerings accordingly.
A recently-launched library program that offers mini grants to students undertaking research projects sheds quite a bit of light on this expansive range of resources. The program offers up to $1,000 to support innovative and collaborative projects that make a real-life impact by strengthening community partnerships, enhancing global scholarship, or advocating for diversity and inclusion.
Grant recipients are partnered with library mentors who fielded expertise in the relevant academic disciplines and technologies. And at least as important as their individual skill sets is that these mentors are part of a library ecosystem, nodes on a network of services, facilities, knowledge, and expertise that efficiently connect a need to its corresponding resource.
Take, for example, Parisa Soraya, who completed a Master of Health Informatics in 2017. She was awarded a mini grant in the program’s second year for her project to develop an app that connects people living with the same chronic illness so they can obtain local, timely, in-person support.
Prior to the mini grant, Soraya had not relied heavily on the library to further her project. “Students in our generation want to find things on our own, and as quickly as possible,” she explained. Using the library when you can so easily find information via Google seemed like an unnecessary hurdle back when she was first gathering information for her reports and case analyses.
Now she shakes her head. “I really wish now I’d had the tools the library introduced me too. That earliest part of the project would have gone much more smoothly.” A prospective entrepreneur, she had viewed the library as a venue for students pursuing academia, and one not as relevant to product development. “What I realize now is that as we conceptualize and pitch our products we need to highlight the problem we’re trying to solve. And to do that we need sound data. Now, when we’re pitching at business conferences, we have a solid foundation backed up by sound statistics, and it’s been so helpful.”
Soraya’s library mentor was Patricia Anderson. As emerging technologies informationist at the Taubman Health Sciences Library, Anderson is particularly well-informed about the question animating Soraya’s work in her current project and beyond: How can we use information and technology to improve patients’ lives? She immediately understood the project’s goals, and was able to connect the team to resources documenting the scope and impact of a vast range of chronic health conditions. This is the solid foundation that enables Soraya to state with confidence that “50% of adults live with at least one diagnosed chronic health condition,” among other facts now at her fingertips.
Anderson is also deeply embedded in the university and the community, and was able to introduce Soraya’s team to interested campus councils, university administrators, and to students and community members that live with chronic illness. One of these introductions led to Soraya’s team obtaining an additional grant to support their effort to make sure the app would be accessible to people with disabilities.
And then, during Soraya’s grant wrap-up presentation Anderson—a very active social media user—live-tweeted a picture of one of Soraya’s slides. The tweet caught the eye of Susannah Fox, Chief Technology Officer of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) during the Obama administration, who describes her role there as “helping HHS harness the power of data and technology to improve the health and welfare of the nation.”
Fox retweeted Soraya’s slide, and she and Soraya have been in contact ever since, with Fox advising Soraya on how to grow the app. “Underlying all her [Fox’s] work is finding ways to include patients in their own health care, and to help them feel less alone,” Soraya says. The presentation itself was a modest affair, with perhaps 30 attendees. But Patricia’s social media amplification helped forge this new, surprising connection.
The long-term future of Soraya’s app is still to be determined. Over the summer the team will participate in two pilot projects, one in partnership with Wayne State University physicians and patients in a suicide prevent group, and one with young survivors of gunshot wounds. The information they gather via these pilots will inform next steps, ultimately toward a wider launch.
The potential real-world impact of Soraya’s app is a hallmark of the mini-grant program. Among the other projects in the 2016-2017 cohort are one that seeks to reduce infant mortality and improve outcomes by designing a sustainable, low-cost incubator device for developing regions; another that’s creating a video game to combat deforestation and species extinction; and another that is developing a digital map to to help activists and providers better assist victims of human trafficking in Michigan. Their mentors include an engineering librarian with patent and trademark expertise, a learning design specialist and media artist, and a data visualization specialist.