The Modern Epidemiologist’s Library

Post date: Mar 18, 2015

We live in a time when many reference books are no longer needed, mainly due to the Internet (who even owns a volume of Encyclopedias anymore, or for that matter, consults them). With most information a click away on websites like Wikipedia or a quick Internet search, buying and keeping heavy volumes may be a thing of the past for modern day students. Certainly I don’t advocate doing away with hardcopy books (read Fahrenheit 451 if you doubt this) but I do question the mass production and distribution of reference material, especially didactic tomes.

Furthermore I’m also an advocate of “tiny living,” almost to the point of being nomadic, able to pick up and relocate in a few boxes. Therefore, if I’m buying a book, it needs to be something that 1) I’ll refer to time and again, and 2) not readily available / may not be readily available on the Internet. What I present here is my experience building an Epidemiologist’s library, a question that I’m often asked as a teacher. These are the core “desert island” books that in my opinion are necessary for students of the profession.

  • Foundational knowledge: I like Gordis’s Epidemiology and Aschengrau and Seage’s Essentials of Epidemiology in Public Health. These are excellent introductions to the field, and used by many introductory epidemiology courses. Gordis is particular useful for the many full color pictures and graphs, but Aschengrau and Seage is probably more encompassing. Yet unless you are teaching epidemiology to others, or are not pursuing advanced study, these books can be sold after their initial use.
  • Core methods: I’m partial to Szklo and Nieto’s Epidemiology: Beyond the Basics. For most masters’ level epidemiologists (MPH/MS), this is the only book you’ll need on study design and analytic strategies. It’s highly readable and general enough to be used in a variety of disciplines.
  • Advanced study: Rothman, Greenland, and Lash’s Modern Epidemiology is the authoritative guide to methodological issues in the field. Dense and at times cryptic, it nevertheless answers my question 9 times out of 10. I do not know a single epidemiologist that doesn’t have a copy on their bookshelf.
  • Statistics: I’ve been through at least half a dozen statistics textbooks and sold each and every one. I don’t know what it is, I just find them written in a manner that perhaps only a theoretician or statistician understands. I had just about given up on my question for a good reference when I came across a series of books from CRC Press called “A Handbook of Statistical Analyses using [insert your favorite statistical package here].” As a user of R, I naturally went for the R edition of the book. Here’s what I like about it: 1) it covers a breadth of topics that are commonly used including advanced methods, 2) there is plenty of source code, and 3) there are approachable theoretical discussions. While anyone can perform a statistical analysis, it is understanding the assumptions and interpretation of the test that makes the inference valid. This book achieves that wonderfully.

And that’s it for general reference. The entire field in four hardcopies (actually three seeing how you probably won’t need to hang on to the Intro text). Again, I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from additional or supplemental books, but for me, this is what works, and I’m willing to bet for you too. I do have additional books, but they are electronic copies (PDFs) that I consult only rarely. I’m sure this list will generate disagreement; I’d love to hear what works for you.

For those that specialize in an area, I can see adding an additional book to the library. For me, as an infectious disease epidemiologist, I wanted to supplement this list, but without buying a host of books on immunology, disease pathology, outbreak investigation, disease modeling, and specific disease epidemiology (as I did when I was a student). Although pricey, Nelson’s Infectious Disease Epidemiology is an absolute must and the bible of the field. This is probably the book I turn to most often these days (especially with the recent measle's outbreak).

Lastly, here are a few of my favorite websites that are particularly useful for statistical theory and programming reference. Hopefully you’ll find them useful too: