Narrative as Evidence

This past week I attended the MLGSCA & NCNMLG Joint Meeting in Scottsdale, AZ. What do all these letters mean, you ask? They stand for the Medical Library Group of Southern California and Arizona and Northern California and Nevada Medical Library Group. So basically it was a western regional meeting of medical librarians. I attended sessions covering topics including survey design, information literacy assessment, National Library of Medicine updates, using Python to navigate e-mail reference, systematic reviews, and so many engaging posters! Of course, it was also an excellent opportunity to network with others and learn what different institutions are doing.

The survey design course was especially informative. As we know, surveys are a critical tool used by librarians. I learned how certain question types (ranking, for example) can be misleading, how to avoid asking double-barreled questions, and how to not ask a leading question (i.e. Do you really really love the library?!?) Of course, these survey design practices reduce bias and attempt to represent the most accurate results. The instructor, Deborah Charbonneau, reiterated that you can only do the best you can with surveys. And while this seems obvious, I feel that librarians can be a little perfectionistic. But let’s be real. It’s hard to know exactly what everyone thinks and wants through a survey. So yes, you can only do the best you can.

The posters and presentations about systematic reviews covered evidence-based medicine. As I discussed in my previous post, the evidence-based pyramid prioritizes research that reduces bias. Sackett, Rosenberg, Gray, Haynes, and Richardson (1996) helped to conceptualize the three-legged stool of evidence based practice. Essentially, evidence-based clinical decisions should consider the best of (1) the best research evidence, (2) clinical expertise, and (3) patient values and preferences. As medical librarians we generally focus on delivering strategies for the best research evidence. Simple enough, right? Overall, the conference was informative, social, and not overwhelming – three things I enjoy.

On my flight home, my center shifted from medical librarianship to Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The only essay I had previously read in this collection of essays was “On Keeping a Notebook”. I had been assigned this essay for a memoir writing class I took a few years ago. (I promise this is going somewhere.)  In this essay, Didion discusses how she has kept a form of a notebook, not a diary, since she was a child. Within these notebooks were random notes about people or things she saw, heard, and perhaps they included a time/location. These tidbits couldn’t possibly mean anything to anyone else except her. And that was the point. The pieces of information she jotted down over the years gave her reminders of who she was at that time. How she felt.

I took this memoir class in 2015 at Story Studio Chicago, a lofty spot in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. It was trendy and up and coming. At the time, I had just gotten divorced, my dad had died two years prior, and I discovered my passion for writing at the age of 33. So, I was certainly feeling quite up and coming (and hopefully I was also trendy). Her essay was powerful and resonated with me (as it has for so many others). After I started library school, I slowed down with my personal writing and focused on working and getting my degree, allowing me to land a fantastic job at UCLA! Now that I’m mostly settled in to all the newness, I have renewed my commitment to writing and reading memoir/creative non-fiction. I feel up and coming once again after all these new changes in my life.

As my plane ascended, I opened the book and saw that I had left off right at this essay. I found myself quietly verbalizing “Wow” and “Yeah” multiples times during my flight. I was grateful that the hum of the plane drowned out my voice, but I also didn’t care if anyone heard me. Because if they did, I would tell them why. I would say that the memories we have are really defined by who we were at that time. I would add that memory recall is actually not that reliable. Ultimately, our personal narrative is based upon the scatterplot of our lives: our actual past, present, future; our imagined past, present, future; our fantasized past, present, and future. As Didion (2000) states:

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. (p. 124)

What does this have to do with evidence-based medicine? Well, leaving a medical library conference and floating into this essay felt like polar opposites. But were they? While re-reading this essay, I found myself considering how reducing bias (or increasing perspectives) in research evidence and personal narrative can be connected. They may not seem so, but they are really part of a larger scholarly conversation. While medical librarians focus upon the research aspect of this three-legged stool, we cannot forget that clinical expertise (based upon personal experience) and patient perspective (also based upon personal experience) provide the remaining foundation for this stool.

I also wonder about how our experiences are reflected. Are we remembering who we were when we decided to become librarians? What were our goals? Hopes? Dreams? Look back at that essay you wrote when you applied to school. Look back at a picture of yourself from that time. Who were you? What did you want? Who was annoying you? What were you really yearning to purchase at the time? Did Netflix or Amazon Prime even exist?? Keeping on “nodding terms” with these people allows us to not let these former selves “turn up unannounced”. It allows us to ground ourselves and remember where we came from and how we came to be. And it is a good reminder that our narratives are our personal evidence, and they affect how we perceive and deliver “unbiased” information. I believe that the library is never neutral. So I am always wary to claim a lack of bias with research, no matter what. I prefer to be transparent about the strengths of evidence-based research and its pitfalls.

A couple creative ways I have seen this reflected in medicine is through narrative medicine, JAMA Poetry and Medicine, and Expert Opinions, the bottom of the evidence-based pyramid, in journals. Yes, these are biased. But I think it’s critical that we not forget that medicine ultimately heals the human body which is comprised of the human experience. Greenhalgh and Hurwitz (1999) propose:

At its most arid, modern medicine lacks a metric for existential qualities such as the inner hurt, despair, hope, grief, and moral pain that frequently accompany, and often indeed constitute, the illnesses from which people suffer. The relentless substitution during the course of medical training of skills deemed “scientific”—those that are eminently measurable but unavoidably reductionist—for those that are fundamentally linguistic, empathic, and interpretive should be seen as anything but a successful feature of the modern curriculum. (p. 50)

Medical librarians are not doctors. But librarians are purveyors of stories, so I do think we reside in more legs of this evidence-based stool. I would encourage all types of librarians to seek these outside perspectives to ground themselves in the everyday stories of healthcare professionals, patients, and of ourselves.



  1. Didion, J. (2000). Slouching towards Bethlehem. New York: Modern Library.
  2. Greenhalgh, T., & Hurwitz, B. (1999). Why study narrative? BMJ: British Medical Journal, 318(7175), 48–50.
  3. Sackett D.L., Rosenberg W.M., Gray J.A., Haynes R.B., & Richardson W.S. (1996). Evidence based medicine: What it is and what it isn’t. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 312(7023), 71–2. doi: 10.1136/bmj.312.7023.71.


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