Article Summary 2: Libraries reaching out with health information to vulnerable populations: guidance from research on information seeking and use (Dervin)

Brenda Dervin examines three broad areas of literature (research comparing information seeking and use between the two fields of communication and library and information science, research documenting how difficult it is to understand and compare similar studies conducted among different academic communities, and research on use of emerging electronic media for information needs. Her review led to a collection of propositions regarding user needs, patterns of information transmission success, and assumptions surrounding both information transfer and user abilities. It is Dervin’s reported hope that by illuminating these propositions, the fields of communications and library science can begin to improve their efforts towards providing health information to target populations (namely, those that differ racially or ethnically from the majority).

Dervin also highlights the differences between communication and LIS with respect to reaching target, “vulnerable” populations, with communication relying more on persuasion toward an information-provider’s idea of the best outcome and LIS providing service toward the information-provider’s perception of the best information. Both, according to Dervin, are guilty of false assumptions and ineffective transmission methods.

A long list propositions leads to a final few that sum appropriately including “treating people as human works best” (proposition #24) and “communication’s most basic fundamental is the quid pro quo” (proposition #25). Previous propositions examine why these simple two are true (such as noting that users are increasingly wary of information providers, and are often seen as victims who must be saved rather than active participants in the quest for health literacy). It is clear that it is becoming increasingly difficult to disseminate information, that emerging technologies are creating an increasing level of difficulty, and that more efforts must be made in order to reach the large number of people with health information needs. Moving from group-oriented campaigns toward meeting individual-level needs is one intuitive (and supported) change that will aid targeted populations. Avoiding assumptions about user group’s ability to understand and participate in information-building efforts is another. Providing multiple avenues for information dissemination, and ensuring community involvement, will increase an individual’s involvement and information receptivity.

I have typically enjoyed Dervin’s subject matter, but this isn’t the first time I’ve struggled with her writing style. She clearly writes with the academic in mind. I feel like I shouldn’t have to read the same sentence more than once to get my head around the word flow – it significantly takes away from what I take from the article. That said, reading this article made me think quite a bit about past and current efforts to change a population’s “dangerous” or “unhealthy” habits. Very few have taken the approaches proposed here, and most seem so intuitive. Nobody wants to be preached to, and everyone wants to feel like they are both respected and expected to participate in their own lives.

Dervin B. Libraries reaching out with health information to vulnerable populations: guidance from research on information seeking and use. J Med Libr Assoc. 2005; 93(4) Supplement: S74-S80.

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