From the catalogs of babes











{April 24, 2010}   parable #210: a day in the life of a poison center

Once upon a time, about 2 weeks ago, a friend of mine posted an interesting link on Facebook to a post from the Illinois Poison Control Center blog. It’s called “A Day in the Life of a Poison Center,” and the entry is simply a chronicle of every single call and inquiry the center received on a given day: February 10, 2010. The center received 282 calls and abbreviated each one to a 1-2 sentence anonymized summary which was listed in the blog as it occurred.

The day-in-the-life blogathon was motivated by state funding cuts to the poison control center (surprise, surprise). By listing tangible, concrete examples of the services they provide, the poison control center effectively demonstrates value and return on investment to the community–I mean, isn’t saving a life worth a little bit of state financial aid?

But whether or not they intended to, the poison control bloggers demonstrated more that just why the center needs funding–they also clearly demonstrated exactly what their staff do all day and why it’s important to have trained, specialty professionals handling those tasks.

Let’s say your child just drank some drain cleaner. Who do you want answering your questions: a professionally certified poison specialist with training in toxicology, or some random, minimum-wage worker hired off of Craig’s List?* Sure, we can save money by hiring less qualified staff–and we might need to after being subjected to drastic funding cuts. But is it worth it?

Reading through the summaries, I learned lots of things I never knew or realized about poison control centers before. I had no idea that EMTs and ER doctors and nurses consulted poison control centers for information and advice–or that such a high percentage of calls to the poison control center were from those sources. I guess I always just assumed poison control centers were designed for end-consumer, average individual use. It certainly makes sense, though–I can’t expect an EMT or ER staff or general physician to be familiar with highly detailed, in-depth specialty knowledge about the immense amounts and varieties of poisonous substances that exist in the world. It’s critical that they call someone with specialty knowledge of the subject–people’s lives depend on it.

Now, I might be biased and it might be a stretch to say that librarians save lives,** especially in the same direct ways and methods as poison control specialists. But the two situations seem to me to have much more similarities than differences: they both fulfill information needs from reliable sources.They both require specialized knowledge and training to perform this task. Their job duties are both often misunderstood by the general public and they both suffer from funding cuts–from tax money that comes from that same public. The Illinois Poison Control Center publically documented every single question they received in a given day in a direct attempt to  change the former in order to change the latter. What if we did the same thing with library reference questions? Could it help show exactly how we help unite people with the critical information they need and answer that annoying age-old question: “why do you need a master’s degree to be a librarian?”

*(Now, I realize that’s a bit blunter and more cut-and-dried than the real world, where often times people without degrees and certifications can still hold expert knowledge, and people who hold those qualification can still be ignorant. But in general, there’s a reason such degrees and qualifications and standards exist, and the poison control center is an excellent example.)

**Just for the record, I totally and utterly do believe that librarians save lives. It’s not as hands-on direct as doctors and EMTs, but getting the right information to people is just as critical and often has the power to affect life decisions of all levels of significance. If I didn’t truly believe that, I probably wouldn’t be a librarian.

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[…] are reference questions, but not all reference questions are catalog queries So what if libraries did take a page post from the Illinois Poison Control Center and chronicle every single reference query in a day, or a […]



Booker says:

Is it a bad thing that I was a little disappointed not to get more information about the inquiries to the poison control center and what sorts of categories might fit them?



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