Profile of Patricia Anderson, medical librarian


Between daily meetings and presentations, Patricia Anderson is busy rewriting the rules of librarianship.   Through exploring web comics as a medium to teach medical literacy, writing blog posts on new technologies, and tweeting useful resources, Anderson’s passion for applying innovation is obvious.

Patricia Anderson 56, is the Emerging Technologies Librarian at the University of Michigan’s Taubman Health Sciences Library.  The Information Age is changing the way we gather, share, and use information, and healthcare is an area that has tremendous potential to improve through technology resources and social media.  Recent statistics released by Pew Internet Research indicate that 80% of internet users look for medical information online.  However, Anderson explains that changing the structure of established institutions, like healthcare, is often met with resistance.  In her work to overcome these challenges and help the library and the University keep up with technology trends, Anderson has won several awards and published an respected encyclopedic guide on finding medical information online.

Anderson’s path to the medical librarian career was not linear, but she claims that “never having a clue what I was going to be when I ‘grew up’ was a good thing.”  As a talented poet growing up in Ames, Iowa, she had envisioned herself as a poetry librarian before an epiphany moment her second year of her Master’s in Library Science at the University of Michigan.  Anderson describes how she was reading a term paper and realized “whatever this man (the author) does, this is what I want to do.”  This man was Manfred Kochen, an information scientist who studied how computers can create online social communities and facilitate social media to influence policy decisions.

In the early 1980s, Kochen had essentially predicted some of the powerful applications of the Internet. He was a professor at Michigan and held joint positions across five schools.  Anderson took an class with him her final year and she soon became one of his favorite students. He became her mentor and father figure and they worked together on a project on neural networks. Kochen’s influence on Anderson’s life is reflected by the photo she keeps of him on her desk to this day.

Anderson shares Kochen’s ideas on the power of social media and online social communities.  She describes that “communicating effectively is part of what we need to do, but it isn’t enough unless we also are capable of using communication to build connections with and between people.” This is especially applicable in the healthcare field where communication is vital but information presentation is often not effective.  Anderson says one element of the problem is that “the people preparing the material do not recognize just how HUGE the knowledge gaps in health literacy can be.” Most of the informational material is presented by people who can’t comprehend what it is like to not understand concepts because they grew up surrounded by healthcare influences.  Anderson’s mother was a nurse and realized this phenomenon firsthand with a friend diagnosed with cancer.  She was trying to explain the treatments to her friend when Anderson realized that the misunderstandings of her condition were on a very fundamental level and she couldn’t be expected to make educated decisions.

A big challenge to change is determining how to effectively communicate scientific and medical information to the public.  Andrew Maynard, the director of University of Michigan’s Risk Science Center and renowned science communicator shares similar philosophies with Anderson and they often talk about approaches to communicate with the public.  “Yes, now that’s an interesting conversation,” Maynard begins “for lack of a better word, it ultimately takes storytellers to identify the science and tell the story.“  Anderson is using this idea in her new project using web comics as a medium to present information.

Anderson is intrigued with the appeal of web comics and is developing a project to make one to teach health literacy and how to find information using web resources.  Nine years ago Anderson wrote The Medical Library Association Encyclopedic Guide to Searching and Finding Health Information on the Web with the goal of helping people to help themselves and make an accessible resource that everyone could access and afford.  However, the book ended up to be a three edition series that was very well received and sold exclusively to medical libraries at $500 a copy.  Despite the success of her book, she was disappointed that it didn’t reach her target audience and she  is revisiting this goal using web comics. Although the project is still in its early stages and there are a lot of hurdles to work through, Anderson is excited about its potential.

Anderson brings a sincere enthusiasm for her work that is contagious when talking with her.  However, Anderson recalls “Once a boss told me I had an excess of passion and if I could please tone it down.” Taubman Heath Sciences Library and the University of Michigan can be glad she didn’t take this advice.




About Kaitlyn

Kaitlyn is a second year medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School interested in innovations in medical education. When she is not preparing to be a physician, chances are she is on her bike!

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