A Conversation with Pat Erwin

April 26, 2012 at 8:40 am 3 comments

Pat Erwin is an icon in the Plummer Library. She has been on staff for 40 years, and has been Head of the Reference Department for the last 30 years. Mark Flaherty from Media Support Services sat down with Pat to record her memories of her first days at Mayo Clinic, and to hear her thoughts on how life has changed in the library. Here are some excerpts from his interview:

Tell us how you got your job.

I married into town.  My husband was the Post Bulletin legislative reporter and I was the chief indexer for the Minnesota State Senate in the first of the long sessions in 1971. During the course of which we met, married, and then there was the problem of finding a job. There weren’t many library jobs in Rochester. Thanks to a somewhat roundabout way, the Post Bulletin science reporter, Ken McCracken knew Dr. Chuck Roland who was the physician leader of the Mayo Clinic Library.  He mentioned that there was a position opening up; he told my husband, who told me, and I applied. I came down [to Rochester]; I believe it was in November 1971. The hiring process at Mayo was somewhat smaller and shorter back then.  I met with Dr. Roland, I met with Jack Key [director of the Library] and he hired me.

How was your first week?

I remember my first week of work only in a blur. I remember following Sylvia Haabala around—she was the head of the Reference Department. She was non-stop and in those days we didn’t use computers. I was so tired at the end of the week that my husband actually had to boost me into bed.

You worked in the state legislature—how was the transition into a medical library?

My background was history and law which is a fair jump [to medicine].  Fortunately, time passed a little slower in those days.  You had a little more time to learn.  If I asked ““What the hell is that?” people were more than happy to explain what is was or to show me where I could find out.  And I had the time to find out.  To do the same thing now, I think, would be almost impossible. These days I’m known as an expert searcher.

You were hired as a Reference Librarian. What was the appeal?

A reference librarian is basically finding needles in haystacks.  The physician, the scientist, may have an idea that there is something out there; they may have a last name; they may have a general subject category, or a combination of terms.  And, a goodly portion of what librarians, particularly reference librarians do is fix bad citations.  Citations that are incomplete, lack pages, lack authors, lack titles.  A good day was when two of us did 20 searches in a day because, bear in mind, the only way you could get an online search was to go through the librarian.  On a bad day one of us would do 30-40—then you went home “brain dead”!  After end-user searching became popular, most of the academic medical librarians stopped doing searches and started teaching people how to do searches.  That was different at Mayo—we’ve never stopped doing searches, nor did we ever charge.

What was the Rochester campus like when you started?

The Plummer Building impressed me no end. Initially the Library was only on the 11th and 12th floors; the 15th floor housed the History of Medicine area, but that was much beyond me.  My first day was to go to the 12th floor and find where everything was. When I came for my physical I went to the 1914 Building which was where Siebens is now; the Mayo Building  was at its full height by then.  Other than that many of the buildings didn’t exist or were considerably shorter, or smaller.  But there was no signage at all.  I lived over where Charter House is now in a small apartment building and I would dash madly across the parking lot at Methodist on the north side, passed what was then the Methodist-Kahler Library, a short two-three story building, dive into the subway and prayed that I’d remember how to get to the Plummer Building without having to go outside, because there was very little signage anywhere.  All of the elevators in the Plummer Building during the day had elevator operators.  We’d get on the elevator, and they’d ask you “which floor?”  Most of the time they didn’t ask – once they knew you, they’d go to where you needed to go and if you happened to be day dreaming they’d push you out on the right floor!  People were very friendly, and it wasn’t uncommon to occasionally have one of the patients wander into the Library.  In those days, the patients’ library main office was behind the elevators on Plummer 12.

How have the search tools evolved?

When I started we didn’t do many searches for physicians, because the only way you could do a search was to manually go through the indexes [Index Medicus]– big, heavy, books.  Each monthly volume was about two inches thick in paper and then you ended up with about, oh – probably close to 40 pounds a year in terms of paper.  It was divided by authors—but they only gave the first three authors.  So if you were the fourth author – you didn’t exist.  In the subject categories, you had perhaps three categories that were listed in the printed indexes.

 In May of 1972 we got a teletype machine that we used when we first started searching. A teletype machine ran at about twelve characters per second, both input and output. If you think of the old movies of newspaper offices and a box that “chattered” at you – that’s what we did our searches on. That didn’t happen until May of 1972. The National Library of Medicine had just inaugurated their MEDLARS online system. Michael Homan, who is currently director of the library, was in the first class and my boss, Sylvia, was in the second class. Sylvia was gone for three weeks of indexer training at the National Library of Medicine, and I, a grassy green new librarian, was on my own for three weeks.  It was terrifying!

Then we got what we termed the Silent 700s. They were dumb terminals that connected to a telephone network through an acoustic coupler.  We got very adept at that little hand motion that would put the handset into the back of the Silent 700.  They initially ran at 30 characters per second. Then gradually, over the years moved up to 120 characters per second and that was both input and output.  That meant you didn’t print long searches.  These days it’s not uncommon for me to put together a search with 5,000 citations. In those days you seriously considered anything over fifty.

 In 1984 we wrote a proposal to the Joint IBM and Mayo Clinic Committee for one of the 50 donated IBM PCs– it was a “floppy” drive, there was no hard drive on it.  We did get it.  It was not a trivial gift– the modem and the software cost well over $5,000. Think about how much a laptop costs today. We still connected over the phone lines, we did not have a [fiberoptic] network yet. About a year and a half after that, we were able to justify a second XT and we upgraded the PC to an XT so the two searchers at that time, Dottie Hawthorne and I, each had a machine for performing literature searches.  The speed was a little faster.  At 1200 baud, you can read as it goes by on the screen.  At 2400 you can see words periodically so at least you know you’re on the right track.

The tipping point, though, was in the early 90s; we were using BRS– Bibliographic Retrieval Service a commercial gatherer of databases.  My budget in those days per month was $25,000 just for searching.  Steve Nelson, who was then in the RCF [Research Computing Facility] and I combined our efforts to figure out just how much we were spending on database searching. We projected in the following year that we would reach $1 million which was a great impetus for IT, the RCF, the clinicians and the Library to formulate a plan for how we could, in fact,  bring bibliographic database searching in house. We set up three different data centers — one in Rochester at the RCF, one in Jacksonville and one in Scottsdale.  The idea was that this was mission critical to the care of the patient. Later it became quite obvious that we didn’t need to have all the redundancy as the LAN/WAN networking was stable so Rochester housed the necessary servers.  It provided a model.  Initially we used Gopher to distribute the access to the databases as well as the drug information.  And then as the web came in 1994-1995 we moved to the web.

Not long ago someone asked me “Would you say you were an early adopter of PCs?”  Umm, yeah.

How has this technology changed your workflow?

Back in the late 70’s, I was assigned to verify the references for Dr. Charles Owen’s book on Wilson Disease.  It took me all summer– there were 600 references.  If I were going to do the same thing now, it might take me a couple of weeks; if it were a rush, I probably could get it done in considerable less time.

[Before email] I used to go through two reams of paper a day printing searches.  Now I doubt if I go through two reams of paper every two months!  I put the search results and search strategy (so that the requesters know how I got the results) into a Word document and I e-mail it to them.  And, I usually e-mail a piece of software [EndNote] that allows them to manage the references within their manuscript.  The average search probably takes me less than an hour.  A complicated search may take me a week, but a regular search, doesn’t take that long to do and that can be critical.

What about Google?

If I don’t know what I’m being asked, I can Google it.  I can find out at least a little bit about it, or what else it might be called, or its association. Several years ago, I got a very, very broad search on novel techniques used in tissue engineering.  It was one where you got nothing or you got gazillions!  I finally settled down with Google and discovered that the key word that I was looking for was scaffold.  Once I had that, I could go someplace.  Without something like Google, I would have never gotten there.

Any nail biting experiences?

I remember many years ago, when we were still using a Silent 700.  I got a hair raising phone call from a surgeon.  They had a patient on the table, the patient was dying.  So I was banging on the keys, and Dottie was reading the results over my shoulder.  We did find out, about a week later, that the patient survived.  That was “nail polishing on our shirt front time” but we’d really rather not do that again!

Interview conducted by Ann Farrell, Reference Librarian
Videotaping by Mark Flaherty, Media Support
Transcription by Barbara Tarpenning, Administrative Assistant

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  • 1. Kenneth E. Nollet, MD, PhD [MMS 93, BIOC 93, PATH 97, TRMED 98]  |  April 30, 2012 at 4:22 am

    A wonderful article about Mrs. Erwin, and Mayo history. I have fond memories of her help during my time in Rochester (1985-1998). Fukushimla, Japan is now home, but I always like to drop by the library when I’m in town, and on lucky days, Pat is in her office and we have a chat.

  • 2. Dee Chase  |  May 4, 2012 at 9:06 am

    I was introduced to Pat by Dr. Scheithauer a few years back, and she has provided an immense amount of help and support in my manuscript endeavors throughout the years. She is an outstanding individual and a local treasure!

  • 3. Matt Ames  |  August 1, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Having been here a good many years (but not quite as many as Pat), her recollections of pre-modern searches and tools was a trip down memory lane. And, Pat was absolutely the “go to” person for search issues/difficulties. There were many times when we had no clue until she helped us find the important material. For a full-time investigator writing mss and grants, her expertise was a survival kit for many of us.

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