Humans of LIBER Interview — Wichor Bramer, Biomedical Information Specialist, Erasmus MC
This interview is part of the Humans of LIBER campaign 2022 — which draws upon the pillars of the upcoming LIBER Strategy 2023 – 2027. We feature real people working at research libraries who make up the LIBER community. We believe that by highlighting our community in a more humane manner, we can create genuine connections within and outside of our network. We hope to see our community inspired by each of these personal stories of working at research libraries.
This is the second part of our interview at the Erasmus MC Medical Library (see the first part here). Wichor shared with us his work as an information specialist, and how his search method contributes to the life-saving work of medical researchers and professionals. Now, over to Wichor:
My name is Wichor Bramer. I’m a biologist like Frans, although I didn’t finish the degree and switched to Information Services and Management, which I did finish. In 2009 I was hired by Frans for technological innovation here. But he gave me carte blanche and with that, I found another niche, which is systematic reviews. We developed a method here that helps us do systematic review searches much more efficiently. Before the method, our library colleagues only did 5% of the systematic review searches within our institute. Last year, we did 95% of all searches. I also published my own PhD thesis on the efficiency of creating searches and systematic reviews.
For me, biology was really a mismatch. When I was in high school I liked the topic, but I couldn’t see myself working as a biologist. I was more interested in railway stations, and back in the days, we had free student travel cards and we could travel all over all over the Netherlands for free with public transport. I went through all of the Netherlands and took photos of every existing railway station. And through that, I started going into archives and I wanted to learn a lot about the history of railway stations, which brought me into the study of information services and management. Sometimes people compare us to IT persons, but IT persons always have to manage problems.
As information specialists, we provide a service and we give people information that they hadn’t thought they needed themselves.
I started at a small government agency, and then a public health government agency was looking for an information specialist, so I went there. I believe one of the main reasons that Frans invited me was my background in biology. I think to be a good information specialist, it is useful to have two different backgrounds.
Working closely with medical researchers
The researchers are the expert on a topic, and what’s most important for us is to ask intelligent questions to the researchers. When we do a search, we together as a team have the knowledge of both sides: the in-depth knowledge of the database and the knowledge of the topic. In 2017, there were plans for large budget cuts. The manager at that time wasn’t too keen on our service, so we went over to his office and did a live search for him. He was so impressed by our searches that he was keen to promote this service more. My contribution in writing the methodology often meets the standard criteria for co-authorship in publications. I’m responsible for describing the methodology, and in large part for the design and data gathering, and co-authorship is very often offered to us.
We also do workshops, and they really help people become aware that the searches they develop themselves are not efficient enough. I think most people are using PubMed the same way they use Google, and they treat PubMed as if it were a medical Google. They think you can just type in something, PubMed gives you an answer, and you’re satisfied. In the workshop, we ask them to do a search on a certain topic, and they usually find only around 200 articles. We show them that if we do it systematically, we can get 30,000 articles. And it tells us that this search and this research topic are way too broad. This makes them aware that they’re incapable of doing it. When I started here in 2009, we had about six participants every two months. But now we have 20 participants each month for the basic workshop. So we created much higher demand.
With new technologies, there’s no limit to the information our researchers can go through. In the far future, we can just create a search that contains everything that’s relevant, and it doesn’t matter if there are 100,000 results, you’ll have artificial intelligence to go through it. So we’ll have to find new things to do.
We are always reinventing and trying to find new niches where librarians can prove themselves valuable.
Within the medical field, it’s vital that the researcher gather all the information they can to make a good decision. Because what you read in the literature, and what you publish a systematic review on, influences how other people get treated. It’s a matter of life and death. We focus a lot on researchers, and a bit less on students, but not as much on those who are actually treating patients. I remember one time when I was on holiday, I was asked a question by a doctor who had a patient with an urgent problem. He couldn’t find any literature. I didn’t have WiFi where I was, so I went to a restaurant there to get WiFi and I did a search for him. I still remember the doctor later emailed me to say that this search actually saved this person’s life. That’s something that stays with you. Indeed, one thing we could improve on is to have more services for medical professionals.
I think to become a trusted hub, you need to be at the heart of the organization. If you find somewhere you think you could add something, you need to go there. So you need to have an open mind and a good knowledge of the organization, and not be afraid to make yourself heard, not be afraid to show your face. Don’t sit there waiting for people to come to you, because if you don’t do it yourself, there’s only very few people who will know you as a trusted hub.
Librarians need to be open-minded to learn new skills, even if you’re an experienced information specialist. The way we do searches totally differs from what other people and institutes do, so if our staff is not open-minded, they cannot adapt to our new concepts and methods. Sometimes people attended my workshop, I taught them all my methods, and I gave them a very clear explanation (in my opinion) on how they should do that. And then someone comes after the workshop and goes “can you give me feedback on this search? I didn’t use your method by the way”. What feedback do you expect me to give? My feedback would be, use the method that I taught you.
You do not have to be innovative yourself maybe, but you need to be able to adapt to innovation. That I think is vital in upskilling the library community.
Life outside of work
I’m a big fan of the railway. And I’ve been building a website on Dutch railway stations, with 30,000 photos so far. And I also love music. My wife is a professional violinist, and she teaches a lot, and my children are very musical as well. I play the organ and piano, I sing and I conduct, so there is a lot of music in our family.
The LIBER communications team visits different member institutions to conduct interviews. In light of the current Covid-19 restrictions, we are interviewing member institutions in the Netherlands initially, but we aim to expand the campaign to include our European member institutions once that is possible. If you are interested in being featured, please email us at email@example.com.
Interviewer, author, and photographer: Rosie Allison and Sasha Lam