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U. of I. library creates one-stop shopping site online for health information

MaryBeth Allen
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Mary Beth Allen, the applied health sciences librarian at Illinois, coordinated the Health Information Portal project that brings together health information from many disciplines and sources, making them available in one convenient, easy-to-access place.


Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Hunting for health information on the Web isn’t always good for your health.

All of the backtracking, detours and dead ends required of an inquiring mind in hot pursuit on the information superhighway can lead to frustration and perhaps even a little “road” rage.

Understanding the potholes and other problems, librarians at the University of Illinois have built a site that will allow users to bypass most Web-related symptoms: a single route to the best, most up-to-date health news available online.

The new Health Information Portal brings together health information from many disciplines and sources, making them available in one convenient, easy-to-access place.

“What we’ve tried to do is pull out some of the best health information sources from the vast body that is available free via the Internet,” said Mary Beth Allen, the applied health sciences librarian at Illinois who coordinated the project.

“For example, the biomedical database, PubMed, and its consumer-oriented counterpart, MedlinePlus, are both excellent sources of information, and both are available free to any one with net access,” Allen said. “Most of the sources in the portal’s ‘YOUR Health’ and ‘Salud en Espanol’ sections also are free to anyone with net access.”

Subject guide links are provided for more than 30 health specialties, including aging, alternative medicine, genetics, medical imaging, oncology, substance abuse, toxicology and even veterinary medicine.

According to Allen, the portal was designed to be useful for “anyone with a
health-related question or concern” – from students and researchers to community members.

The project involved the collaboration of 13 campus librarians and three graduate assistants. Their goal was to create “a more visible entryway to interdisciplinary health information.”

“Health research is extremely interdisciplinary and the application of that research is far reaching,” Allen said. “Bringing electronic health information resources together in one place offers a single starting place that supports basic, applied and translational research activities on campus.”

From the new site, researchers can find specialist librarians and more specialized information at campus libraries, in books, databases, journals and other resources.

The new site features:

Health news RSS feeds from The New York Times and Reuters.

Links to major health literature databases, such as CINAHL and PsycInfo (some subscription sites are only available to users affiliated with the Urbana campus).

Links to major full-text journals and books in many health disciplines.

Sources of health data, statistics and images.

Access to Health-E Illinois, a directory of local health service providers, searchable by location, type of service and by health topic. Health-E Illinois is part of the National Institutes of Health/National Library of Medicine’s “Go Local” project to help the public find local resources for health-related issues.

Sources of health information in Spanish.

Instant messaging and chatting with a librarian.

Links to local sources of health-care information and to a variety of local resources, including at the U. of I.: the McKinley Health Center; OASIS – a relaxation center in the Illini Union; the Counseling Center; and Campus Recreation.

The site is maintained by the subject specialist librarians who are named on the site as contacts for each of the subjects.

The librarians who collaborated to build the portal are Pat Allen and Laura Hanson, Funk ACES Library; Melody Allison and Diane Schmidt, Biology Library; Nelly Gonzalez, Latin American and Caribbean Library; JoAnn Jacoby and Allison Sutton, Education and Social Science Library; Lori Mestre, Library Digital Learning; Katie Newman, Biotechnology Library; Mary Shultz, UIC Library of the Health Sciences, Urbana; Nikki Wright, Grainger Engineering Library; and Greg Youngen, Veterinary Medicine Library.

Anna Dombrowski, a student in Illinois’ Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS), is doing the site’s Web editing and preparing for its move to the Library’s content-management system. Tabatha Becker and Erin Miller, two former GSLIS students, now librarians, were instrumental in the design and initial organizational work.

The site went up last fall, even though the librarians were adding content and working out bugs. Without advertising, the site was visited about 300 times in January.

“The project really started to fly when JoAnn Jacoby, from the Education and Social Science Library, discovered Tabatha Becker, who was interested in doing an independent study project on Web page design and usability testing, a perfect match for development of the health information portal idea,” Allen said.

“We had Web accessibility and usability in mind from the beginning, and the Health Information Portal grew from there,” she said.

“We are a public library, so any community member can come in to the Library and use our workstations to search all of our subscription-based services and gain access to full text, and we encourage the community to make use of the resources we provide,” Allen said. “From their own public libraries, members of the community also can request an interlibrary loan of material that isn’t otherwise available.”

Allen believes that the new portal will be a valuable resource for students in the university’s new Health Professions Living-Learning Community, housed in Oglesby Hall.

The University Library seeks input from users to make the portal more useful.

“I expect the portal will continue to evolve as we receive feedback,” Allen said.