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Q & A with Melissa Rethlefsen

Interview by Jason Young, MIDLINE editor
Genesis Medical Center, Davenport, IA

Melissa Rethlefsen is education technology librarian/assistant professor of medical education at the Learning Resource Center, the library of the Mayo Medical School. She writes extensively on social media for library and medical publications and is the lead author of the recent book Internet Cool Tools for Physicians. Her undergraduate degree is in English and history from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and she obtained her library degree from the University of North Texas.


Congratulations on being named a 2009 Library Journal Mover & Shaker. We in the Midwest Chapter are proud to have you as a member. Have you received any perks from this, such as a rock-star parking spot at Mayo?

Ha, yeah right. I am still too new at Mayo Clinic (four years) to even be able to park in the shuttle lots. But, in seriousness, the library staff, the medical students and Mayo Clinic staff have all been very supportive. They are great people to work with, and I couldn't have accomplished much without them.

You majored in English and history. How did you get from there to working in a health sciences library?

Well, that's kind of a long story. Part of it is told in the Library Journalarticle, but let's just say it all began because I wanted to stay around campus over the summer between my second and third years. My roommate, who worked at the University of Minnesota Bio-Medical Library, suggested I try getting a job as a page. The rest is history. The reason I stayed in medical libraries is three-fold: Kathy Robbins, Del Reed, and Diane Jordan. Kathy, in particular, convinced me that medical libraries are the best.

How did you become interested in the technology side of librarianship?

When I got my current job at the Mayo Clinic Libraries, my official title was education technology librarian. I'd done some Web design in my previous positions, but for this one I wanted to make sure I was on top of the technologies important to students and libraries. I quickly came to find a few technologies indispensable to my job, including blogs, RSS and social bookmarking, and it went from there.

How do you stay on top of new technologies? Are there certain blogs and journals you read regularly?

I read constantly. All day long at work, I have Google Reader, Gmail, Delicious, Twhirl, and FriendFeed running, and I try to clean out Google Reader at least once a day. I only have 158 subscriptions in Google Reader, but it's enough. I also read JMLA and skim lots of other journals like JAMA, NEJM, BMJ, BMC Medical Education, etc.

You recently co-authored a book and you've written several articles and present frequently. How do you find time to do all of this?

Good question. Well, I did my MLS degree online in a year while working full time. This doesn't seem like a whole lot of work in comparison. It's been harder now that I canceled my Internet access at home, I must admit, but I rather like having enforced time away from the Web.

Do you think most Web 2.0 developments are here to stay? Which, if any, would you like to see go away?

I do think that most will, or will at least evolve in better form-can you imagine the world without AJAX or crowdsourcing? I'm not sure what the next evolution of the specific tools will be, but it will be fun watching. As far as ones I'd like to see go away... I can't really think of any. I would like to see some clear leaders emerge for some of this stuff, because it's exhausting keeping up with every possible tool for any given task, but I think that's just a dream.

In a nutshell, what's Web 3.0 all about? When will libraries begin to see it implemented?

In a nutshell, it's about structured data and using structured data to organize and find things better, provided that by Web 3.0 what we mean is the semantic Web. I think that, in large part, we're already seeing inklings of the semantic Web already, but I think it will be a long time before we can declare that the semantic Web is here.

Have you ever taken a technology fast? If so, please tell me about it.

Well, as soon as I finished my book, I canceled my Internet access at home, so all I have is my BlackBerry. So other than obsessively carrying my BlackBerry around with me, I basically am on a technology fast whenever I am at home. We'll see how much longer I can take that without cracking. It's been almost a year!

Will the physical library exist in 50 years?

I think people will always need books, a place to gather and people to help them find what they need. Whether this remains true in medical libraries, that I don't know. I'd like to think so, just because people do need space away from home to congregate, whether for quiet reflection or group study. My guess is that medical libraries will continue to shrink in physical size as better tools for accessing information are made available. I look forward to the day when I can read a paper like the Vickies do in Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age.

What's your greatest professional accomplishment?

I think I'd have to say getting the staff of the Mayo Clinic Libraries interested and engaged in using new technologies.

What's your greatest personal accomplishment?

I got some help from friends figuring this one out, and I will have to go with making good cheesecake. Getting platinum medals on everything except Equinox in [James Bond 007 video game] Nightfire comes close, though. One day I hope to say that my greatest personal accomplishment was climbing Mt. Huashan. Look it up on YouTube, or watch this.

What was the best book you've read recently?

I really enjoyed The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. I mostly read young adult fiction these days. Good stuff.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I like to read (surprise!), watch movies, ride my bike and listen to music, all pretty much your average normal stuff. I also like to make elaborate bows for presents and bake hideously fattening desserts, which I proceed to immediately give away to the unsuspecting.


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