Boom! A literature awareness service called REHABDATA-Connection

As we get closer to NIDILRR’s 40th Anniversary, we are taking a look back at our own history as NIDILRR’s library and as a resource for high-quality disability and rehabilitation research literature. We invited Dan Wendling, former Media and Publications Manager, to share his thoughts about building our REHABDATA Connection literature awareness service.

During the dot-com boom and bust, I was a NARIC staff member. The bust was less fun than the boom; not all of the wild ideas survived. I was recently recollecting how, around 1997, the NARIC staff was trying to think very expansively about what “this Internet thing” might be able to open up for us and our customers. Here are a few words about how REHABDATA-Connection came about.

What do you mean, ‘browse’ a database?

When the REHABDATA literature database was part of a fee-based, dial-up service, searchers needed to be experts at constructing the search queries used to retrieve records. Our new World Wide Web version of REHABDATA, on the other hand, allowed search experts to build multiple, complex search strategies and hide them under descriptive hyperlink names on a web page. The hyperlinks could complement each other or cover a new area. The brave new technology world had given us what we called “canned searches.” How to use them? Hmmm.

Supply side research / demand-side research.

On the supply side, what topics do we have strong, multi-faceted content for – what subjects can we cover well? We searched REHABDATA using the NARIC Thesaurus terms, and generated reports to understand this. We also studied the stream of around 200 new documents flowing into the database every month. On the demand side, what topics are customers asking of us? We had multiple years of customer service requests and some rudimentary web traffic logs to wrangle and analyze. Staff from our multiple specialty areas met over months and iterated over the topic list and search strategies. We created topics for assistive technology, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, stroke; created a topic for each project type; and got more adventurous with topics such as “rehabilitation success.”

With around 50 canned-search topics knitted together as our new doorway to NARIC on the World Wide Web, with plain language names, we’re done, right?

Hmmm. But our power users…

We became aware that there were users of our services who had a specific task they were interested in solving. They wanted to know what was different in the database, from the last time they checked. Were any of the 200 new listings in the database every month, relevant to their research interests? With the new information architecture we could pick a time period, say, one month, and then use email to tell them what was new in their favorite topics.

A grey oval with a white arrow pointing from the left to the center with REHABDATA in black letters, and a black arrow pointing from the right to the center with Connection in white letters.

The first (and only) logo for REHABDATA Connection from about 2000.

We started the service in 1998 and people signed up. We created a paper brochure, which was a big source of early subscribers, and a web page in 1999. We created email lists, and copied and pasted bibliographies into emails, one per topic. This was not fun, but we did like the result; and people kept subscribing. 

We did what we could to improve the topics, the process, and the technology over several years, without, however, successfully addressing problems like the monthly manual labor and the fact that if one person subscribed to multiple topics, they would get multiple emails and usually some amount of duplication between the bibliographies – not the best user experience. Still, we had more new subscribes each month than unsubscribes.

Decision point: Keep going?

In 2002, when we had around 500 subscribers, we decided it was time to make things easier for everyone. We worked with a programmer, who created a custom application for us that could send one email to each subscriber, with no duplicate citations, and they only had to see the header and footer information one time, and we could let the application do all the sending. And we could manage the subscriber list easier. Later, partial document summaries were added, and the reader could click a link in the email to be taken directly to that document listing in REHABDATA on the web. Thus began the modern age of REHABDATA-Connection.

Not everything from the dot-com boom survived the bust, but we found a way, over time, to connect our unique acquisitions stream with people who could make use of it. Looking back, I think we also gained customers who we helped to learn more about their research area so they could better address their challenges. That’s my hope. Thanks, boom!

REHABDATA Connection continues to be a strong resource for researchers, professionals, and advocates who want to stay current on the literature in their field. Each month’s email lands in more than 3,700 inboxes around the world. Information about today’s service can be found on the About REHABDATA-Connection web page.

Dan Wendling, MLS, was a NARIC staff member 1990-2003, and is now a technical information specialist at the National Library of Medicine/NIH. The views in this blog post are his personal views and do not reflect the views of the NIH.

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