Psychology Alumnus Helps Library Unite IT and Medicine

David Tolmie in library

David Tolmie, BS ('06), MLIS, calls himself an information junkie with a devotion to meditation and natural medicine. So when the graduate of Bastyr University’s Bachelor of Science in Health Psychology program returned to the University as a librarian in 2013, he says it was like coming home to family.

The 41-year-old grew up in Boulder, Colorado. Early in his career, he gravitated toward computers and information technology. He spent seven years working in IT, five of them at AT&T.

During that time, chronic lower-back pain sent Tolmie looking for relief, eventually leading him to meditation. The meditation worked, giving him an appreciation for natural healing.

Then, at 28, Tolmie had what he thought was the flu for about a week. He woke up one morning in excruciating pain. “I have a really high pain threshold, so I let it go," he says. "But this was so much pain that I passed out. I woke up a couple hours later and was able to get to the phone and get some help.”

It turned out to be acute appendicitis. Tolmie was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery and fully recovered. The experience pushed him to think about his life differently. “It got me into sort of an existential funk and made me wonder what my life could be," he says. "I realized I just wasn’t deriving any meaning from my work.”

He made the decision to quit AT&T, which brought immediate relief.

“The back pain was gone within 36 hours of my quitting,” he says, smiling. “I’ve come to learn the pain was directly related to the deep dissatisfaction in my work.”

Soon, another life-changing event would reinforce his decision to return to school.

Within weeks, Tolmie received news that his older brother, Richard, had been diagnosed with cancer. Tolmie spent the next year taking care of his brother. The cancer took Richard’s life in 2004.

“My brother had been working in technology too, but had always wanted to do something else with his life," David says. "That made it clear that I needed to look at other options and re-evaluate my own life.”

He chose Bastyr's health psychology program based on its focus on spirituality, he says.

Finding the Right Questions

Now his psychology training informs his work as a librarian.

Effective librarians are good communicators, which means they are also good listeners, says Jane Saxton, Bastyr's director of library services.

“Those seeking assistance in libraries seldom clearly identify what they are looking for on the first pass," Saxton says. "Librarians are skilled in conducting 'reference interviews,' which help define the real information need.

“David's experience from his psychology degree taught him high-level communication skills. David had a wealth of technical and computer experience before he enrolled at Bastyr. The Bastyr degree gave him the interpersonal element.”

Says Tolmie, "Much like how health psychology focuses on a patient’s motivations to help them make positive changes in their health behaviors, a good reference interview plumbs a patron’s motivations to determine how to meet their information needs."

Saxton describes a push among Bastyr students and practitioners toward "evidence-informed practice," an approach to clinical care that balances the clinician’s experience, the patient’s values and the best available research evidence. (It's also known as evidence-based medicine; here's a story about how it's reshaping naturopathic medicine.)

Saxton says the evidence-informed approach aligns with skills that medical librarians have always taught: developing clinically answerable questions; becoming familiar with a variety of medical resources; using high-level search skills to locate relevant citations; evaluating the credibility of studies; and applying study results to the case at hand.

Tolmie will help the library staff work with Bastyr faculty to teach those skills, which are included in the naturopathic medicine curriculum. Over the last two years the library has focused on building online tutorials and evaluation methods to demonstrate competency in information literacy.

That may sound like unlikely work for a psychology major like Tolmie, but Saxton says she was glad to find his mix of skills.

“It’s rare to find a librarian with high-level technical skills, who is equally skilled in engaging with people,” says Saxton.

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Learn more about studying health psychology at Bastyr.

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