Computers in Libraries
Vol. 22, No. 9 October 2002

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Exploring PlanetPDA
The Librarian as Astronaut, Innovator, and Expert
by Carol Galganski, Tom Peters, and Lori Bell

Depending on your age, "Star Trek" series preference, and gender, you've seen captain James T. Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, Benjamin Sisko, or Kathryn Janeway portray space travel and exploration as exciting, big-budget, and adventurous. Libraries are not seen as particularly big-budget, exciting, or adventurous, but in fact they are. In our own ways, we are astronauts and explorers, seeking out new technologies and strange information formats, often going boldly where our public has not gone before. For instance, when our hospital library was given the opportunity to explore the terrain and culture of PDAs by applying for and receiving LSTA grant funds from the Illinois State Library, we beamed up to the ship, ready for action and high adventure!

In this article, we will chronicle our trek, exploration, and adventures on Planet PDA (where the personal digital assistants are) and share how we integrated an alien technology into our library services. We will discuss issues, challenges, and possible strategies for libraries that wish to embark on such an adventure. Each of us was involved in a different aspect of the project: Carol Galganski, manager of the Library & Resource Center, as project director and grant administrator; Lori Bell as project coordinator, carrying out the various activities of the project; and Tom Peters as project evaluator.

The Life on Our Planet

Our Library & Resource Center serves the physicians, employees, and students of OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, Illinois. OSF Saint Francis is a tertiary care teaching hospital with more than 4,000 employees. Saint Francis is part of the OSF Healthcare System, which includes seven other hospitals, nursing homes, physician-owned practices, and an insurance company.

The Library & Resource Center is a full-service library, offering mediated literature searching, access to 800 print and electronic journals, interlibrary loan services, and training on electronic databases and the Internet. In addition to providing services to our professional staff, the Library & Resource Center also offers services and a consumer health information collection at the OSF Center for Health, an ambulatory care facility. The library has7.5 FTE. One librarian spent half time on the project, working on the Web page, training, loading software onto PDAs, and other duties. The director, technical services/circulation librarian, and library technical assistants (LTA) all spent a great deal of time on the project too, from promotion and grant activities, to circulation (including checking each PDA to make sure it was complete when returned to the library), to cataloging and creating records for the hardware and software. The project had a big impact on staff during the integration and implementation of this new service.

Embarking on Our Journey Toward the Unknown

At this time, a little more than a year ago, none of us at the library could speak the language of Planet PDA, and we certainly did not know all if its personalities, including characters like ePocrates, Plucker, AvantGo, PrintBoy, and ACDSee, just to name a few. In April 2001, the library was invited to be a part of TAG (Technology Applications Group), a group organized by the Department of Medicine and composed of physicians, residents, nurses, and librarians. At that time, the focus of TAG was to introduce PDAs to residents, medical students, and Saint Francis medical staff. Another library involved in the project was the University of Illinois at Chicago Library of the Health Sciences­Peoria, the library for a branch of the University of Illinois College of Medicine. Its staff was working with the medical school to provide Handspring Visors for third-year medical students during their internal medicine clerkships and for internal medicine residents.

To provide access to hand-held computers for residents in other programs, attending physicians, and other medical professionals, our library purchased six Handspring Visors. These Visors contained the same core content that the TAG group had selected for the internal medicine residents. The software included Griffith's 5-Minute Clinical Consult; ePocrates, a drug database; ABG Pro, a blood gas analyzer; MedCalc, a medical calculation program; and AvantGo, a program that allows you to take selected Web pages in PDA-friendly format with you every time you sync. The Department of Medicine created an AvantGo channel with information like call schedules, phone numbers, and procedures so that participants could download the most up-to-date information.As librarians from a teaching hospital and a medical school, our role in the group was to plan and provide training, recommend and acquire software, and offer basic technical support.

Boldly Going Where None of Us Had Gone Before

Because of the success of this initial effort, we wrote a $50,220 LSTA grant proposal to expand the project, which was funded by the Illinois State Library in October 2001. The purposes of the LSTA grant were as follows:

  • to introduce hand-held technology for knowledge-based resources at the bedside, to explore the most effective way to do so, and to develop and evaluate various training modes
  • to develop efficient methods of purchasing, evaluating, processing, and integrating hardware and software into the library's operations and services
  • to discover the possible roles for libraries in this exciting technology
  • to support the use of handhelds during the implementation of a new hospital information system

The scope of the grant project included purchasing 31 hand-held computers and accessories including 29 Visors (Palm OS), 2 Compaq IPAQs, and more than 60 pieces of software both medical and generic applications for clinicians to use and evaluate; purchasing user licenses for Ovid@Hand; developing and maintaining a PDA Project Web site (; and hosting a conference that would educate other librarians on the use of hand-held computers and provide a forum to share the results of the project. (Of the PDAs purchased with the grant money, OSF Saint Francis got 22 Visor Prisms and one Compaq IPAQ; the rest went to the University of Illinois at Chicago Library of the Health Sciences­
Peoria.) With grant funds, we were also able to hire a half-time project coordinator to work on the proposed activities.

Acquainting Patrons with an Alien Civilization

One of the most valuable roles the library can play, no matter what kind of clientele with which it is working, is in introducing new technology, gadgets, and gizmos. Libraries have traditionally been early adopters of technology, offering whatever clientele they serve, from preschool children to heart surgeons, an initial introduction and experience with various tools and services. This is an extremely important role for libraries, even when a technology or gadget becomes quickly obsolete, because technology plays an important role in the format and the delivery of information. The library is often the first place users encounter new technologies, and it can offer a friendly and non-threatening environment for usersto try them out and learn them before they make their own purchases.

Our overall purpose for the LSTA grant was to introduce the PDA as a device that could bring library resources—drug information, textbooks, and current awareness services—to the point of care. In our project, the library became the place to go to learn about PDAs, to try out both the hardware and the software, and to get training and orientation on their use. Usually, after trying a PDA and its resources from the library, users would purchase their own.

Because of the rapid evolution of hand-held hardware and software products on the market, librarians must tread a fine line when recommending resources, hardware, and software. It is as yet too early to commit to one hardware platform (Palm OS or Windows CE) because, as with IBM and Apple, each one has its strengths and weaknesses, depending on application, user, and other factors. Some medical products are being offered on both platforms, and others are being offered on only one or the other. Until the market evolves more, librarians will have to be open to, knowledgeable about, and informed on many platforms and familiar with many products. If we carefully manage this role, users will see libraries as technology innovators and as the place to go to learn about the latest.

The Software and Content

One of our goals in this project was to learn about PDA applications and knowledge management resources so that we could share information about them. Another goal was to provide some applications and content for our users to try before they purchased their own. We wanted the opportunity to evaluate software and applications and also to find out what was most valuable to our users. At the time we began selecting software, few reviews were available, so we made our selections based on obtaining four to six different products for a number of medical specialties. There were many different products on the market, and we attempted to purchase a variety for trial. These included quick consults; medical textbook companion books; medical calculators; and products in a number of specialties such as pediatrics, emergency, internal medicine, family medicine, and so forth.

At first, purchasing this many packages from a number of vendors was a nightmare. Vendors were used to dealing with individuals with credit cards, and we were a big institution that needed to use purchase orders. Once we got through the maze of purchasing, actually downloading the software and loading it onto all of the PDAs was very time-consuming. The purchase process has since become much easier, ever since library vendors like Rittenhouse, Baker & Taylor, and Majors started stocking PDA products and sending them on CD-ROMs. This streamlines much of the process, since products can now be purchased from a traditional library vendor, using a purchase order. Shipping the software on a CD also makes installation much faster, and provides a tangible product for technical support staff to catalog and add to the library's collection.

Training and Orientation: Learning the PDA 'Culture'

Our original assumptions about training and what was ultimately successful in introducing hand-held computers to our users were completely different. Initially, we thought that training would take place in the usual manner: in a small group with hands-on access on a particular application. We offered a number of different training options on PDAs during the grant period: formal presentations; the traditional small group; a PDA preview, which was an open house featuring PDAs and available modules; and, of course, individualized one-on-one sessions. The one-on-one sessions were offered on the fly and by appointment, and lasted anywhere from a quick 5-minute orientation (a different type of 5-minute consult!) to a 2-hour session on how to set up a PDA and download specific software. We found that with hundreds of applications and modules available, and the vast difference of comfort with and expertise in PDA use, that the personally tailored, one-on-one sessions were by far the most effective. This was labor-intensive, but the most successful and satisfying for library staff and clientele.

Because the library now had PDAs, and because we had done a great deal of research into applications, our users began to consult us on what types of hand-held computers were available, what features they offered, and what might be the best solutions for their particular needs. They also called us to find out about available applications, how we were using them, and how others were using them. We also hosted an electronic user group and kept participants updated on PDA trends via electronic mail. Of course, there were some questions we could not answer; in these cases, we would do what librarians always do—conduct a search!

"As with other technologies, handhelds will continue to become more commonplace until we can't even remember a time when we didn't offer them."

Tech Support: The United Federation of Technologies

Because OSF was in the middle of implementing a new hospital information system and the use of handhelds with the

system had not yet been determined, our IS department did not have the resources to support us in our trek. However, it did not interfere in any way, either. Our library started out offering as much technical support as possible, loading software onto and setting up the library's 22 Visor Prisms and one Pocket PC, as well as the PDAs users ended up purchasing. We did this because the technology was new to many, we wanted to help as much as possible, and every opportunity for assistance helped us learn more about the technology and how to troubleshoot problems.

After a few months setting up the PCs for users, however, we changed our philosophy from providing technical support to more of a training role. Instead of saying, "sure, we will set this up for you," we said, "we will show you how to set up your PDA so you can do it yourself." Although this revised service policy disappointed some people, most of our users are happy if we spend some time showing them how to do it. This approach ultimately makes them feel more confident about using the PDAs on their own.

Reaching Our Destination

We feel we met our goals for the project. We were able to play a pivotal role in introducing hand-held technology to our hospital. We were able to loan hand-held computers to medical staff at all levels, from medical students to attending physicians, from computer trainers to nursing case managers. We were able to expand available hardware and software for circulation with the purchase of Palm OS handhelds and two Compaq IPAQs, and more than 60 software programs for our clientele to use. We were able to offer orientation and training geared to each user to assist them in learning about and using this technology. Our library became the place to go when someone wanted to learn about PDAs.

We also feel that through this project we were able to identify a number of possible wonderful and exciting roles for libraries in the world of Planet PDA. Although the new hospital information system's plans for the use of hand-held computers is not yet firm, our library staff will be part of the training team for the new computer system. We were invited to join this effort because of our training skills in general and our ability to introduce hand-held technology in particular.

It was a challenge to create policies and procedures to integrate PDAs into our day-to-day life on Planet Earth. Personalization and integration of information is intense, and so is the learning curve for hand-held devices. But because of the work we did to integrate PDA services, we are now better able to sustain them and fit them into a regular workday. As with other technologies, handhelds will continue to become more commonplace until they are a regular part of library services, and soon we will not be able to remember a time when we did not offer them. It has been less than 20 years since the first public-access personal computers were offered in libraries; now they are commonplace and expected.

How can a library sustain a project like this one without grant funding? Are we entering an era where the personalization and integration of information (not to mention other forms of communication) is so intense and hyperactive that the traditional library organizational structures, policies, and procedures cannot keep up? Grant funding provided us with the resources necessary to hire staff for the grant period, to spend the time to learn about the technology, and to immerse ourselves in the culture of Planet PDA. But libraries can offer many of the services demonstrated in this grant on a smaller scale than we did. For example, a library might choose to purchase PDAs with only a few programs on them for staff to use and evaluate. It might purchase licenses for tools like Ovid@Hand or Griffith's 5-Minute Clinical Consult for a residency program instead of for the entire hospital staff. And libraries with limited funding can still offer training programs, such as a general introduction to PDAs or a more specific session on their medical uses; can put together a page of Web resources; and can start an electronic users group so participants can share ideas.

Future Challenges for Librarian-Explorers

Can librarians afford to view PDAs as an "alien" technology and try to ignore them? Over time, the place where people go to get information will shift from a physical place to the Internet, cyberspace, or PDAs, and the need for assistance in getting to the information and learning how to use and interpret it will only grow. By introducing PDAs to patrons, even on a small scale, the librarian is seen as a technology explorer, expert, and innovator. As information becomes available in more formats and delivery becomes more sophisticated, librarians can serve as explorers and early adopters of new technologies; as teachers and trainers for their clientele in the use and mastery of the technology; and as experts in utilizing and managing the information. Because this is a popular and growing new medium for the delivery of both reading material and information, librarians cannot afford to ignore it. Just as we are aware of print, online, and Internet resources, we must be familiar with PDA resources and be able to recommend and evaluate these resources for their users.

With the increasing popularity of electronic resources and services such as Web-based reference, it seems as if the number of users coming to the library may lessen. Ironically, while libraries will be exiting from the container (text-bearing device) business, the library as a place with its own distinctive aura may become more important than ever. At OSF Saint Francis, even though physicians, residents, and staff members have access to electronic resources from their desks, our library is still a popular place where they can come for quiet work or study away from the hustle, bustle, and quick pace of the hospital. The emergence of new technologies and information delivery methods will make the library an important place for continual learning. As we experienced with the PDA, introducing alien technologies enhances the role of the librarian as explorer, teacher, and innovator. Beam us down to the next planet! We're ready!  

Carol Galganski is the manager of the OSF Saint Francis Medical Center Library & Resource Center at Peoria, Illinois. She holds an M.S. in library and information science from Case Western Reserve University and an M.S.H.A. in health administration from the University of Saint Francis. She served as project director for the LSTA grant "Point of Care to Their Palms." Her e-mail address is Tom Peters is the director of the Center for Library Initiatives, Committee on Institutional Cooperation located in Champaign, Illinois. He holds an M.S. in library and information science from the University of Iowa and an M.A. in English from the University of Missouri­Kansas City. He served as project evaluator for the "Point of Care to Their Palms" grant. His e-mail address is Lori Bell was formerly a medical librarian at the OSF Saint Francis Medical Center Library & Resource Center and worked as project coordinator on this grant. She is now director of the Mid-Illinois Talking Book Center, part of the Alliance Library Center. She holds an M.S. in library and information science from the University of Illinois. Her e-mail address is
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