Our words, our history

How do sports journalists manage to report the intensity of a World Series game that captivated its audience? This blogger will humbly attempt to convey the enthusiam, originality and relevance of the 2012 Janet Doe Lecture to you.

With his entertaining and interactive presentation: “Our Words, Our Story: A Textual Analysis of Articles Published in the Bulletin of the Medical Library
Association/Journal of the Medical Library Association from 1961 to 2010”, Mark E. Funk made us reflect on the many ways our profession has evolved over the last 50 years.

Funk systematically collected the 84,436 words present in articles published in BMLA/JMLA during this time period (with a few exceptions such as book reviews and obituaries). This large corpus was then reduced to 6893 words by removing stopwords and words appearing less than 50 times. The annual frequency of each of these words was determined, and you may view the resulting word clouds here.

Source: geo-engineering.blogspot.com

Next, Funk proceeded to map each word’s annual frequency along the 1961-2010 timeline. This generated sparklines, which are very small line charts presenting the general shape of the variation over time. Sparklines may be categorized in four different general patterns (or archetypes) acccording to their shape: unchanging, rising or decreasing, or a sharp rise-and-fall. An additional polynomial trend line may be superimposed on the graph to help interpretation.

Funk further divided words into four broad categories: 1) Environment, 2) Management, 3) Technology and 4) Research, and presented a succession of graphs illustrating the most interesting word trends. Please note that the truncation sign he used was : and I’ll use the same below.

  1. Environment: The most frequently used word was Library. Although its usage is declining, Librarian: is rising, which may show that we have shifted our general definition from buildings to people. Other words that define our collections such as Catalog and Book: are less used nowadays, whereas the ascension of Journal:, Article: and Licensing reflects the document shift that occurred in the mid-70s. Similarly, text analysis reveals how our main interest in Medical/Medicine declined as our views expanded to Health:. Also, we are now reaching out to new audiences that were barely mentioned in the 60s, such as Consumer: and Patient:.
  2. Management: Words in this category exhibited very surprising results, as many words emerged and are now commonly used in our vocabulary. Examples include Opportunities, Teams, Focus, Outcomes. So libraries indeed became business-saavy!
  3. Technology: The evolution of Technologyhas deeply affected us, both personally and professionally; it is so imbedded in our lives now that we don’t even mention it anymore.

    How many people in the audience use a mobile device? Photo credit: Gabe Rios

    A notable attention shift occurred from Automat: to Digital:. Evidently, Internet word usage totally exploded in the mid-1990s. Funk asked the audience via a real-time poll to guess which technology word had the sharpest rise and fall. Nominees sharing a brief time in the spotlight were CD-ROMs, Mosaic, PDAs and Gopher. PDAs was the crowd’s favorite, but Gopher was chosen for its perfect,  tower-like graph silhouette.

  4. Research: A previous study of BMLA/JMLA articles published between 1991-2007 showed that 51% of them were research-oriented. Funk’s textual analysis shows the constant IMRDization of journal articles, judging by the rising trends of Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. The following words are also on the rise: Study/Studies, Survey:, Bibliometric, Participant: and Significant. Can we predict which words are “hockey stick terms”, meaning their usage will rise sharply in the years to come? The audience was polled, and EHR: was the most popular candidate, with Bioinformatic: coming second. Other possibilities include Cochrane:, Google and Literacy.

Funk’s textual analysis thus shows that libraries have expanded their world view from medicine to health, and extended their audience to outside the library’s walls. We are running libraries as businesses, we love technologies and are publishing structured articles proper to scientific journals. Our words truly reflect the changes that are shaping our profession. Kudos to Mark E. Funk for such an invaluable research project, and for delivering a presentation that had the audience cheering and up on their feet!

Post-conference update: this Janet Doe Lecture is available for viewing at https://vimeo.com/45367116.

About Natalie Clairoux

I graduated from Université de Montréal's LIS program in 2008, and started working at the Health Library of the same institution right after. My duties include reference services, information literacy workshops and Web site coordination. In a previous life, I worked as a research assistant in various academic laboratories specializing in molecular microbiology. I detain B.Sc. (McGill 1990) and M.Sc. (Laval 1992) diplomas in Microbiology and Immunology. I blog in French about LIS meetings I attend on Bloguer, c'est la santé.
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