Medical Librarianship: You Can Do It Too!

After two months working as a Health & Life Sciences Librarian at UCLA and fresh off attending my first Medical Library Association (MLA) annual conference in Seattle, I can tell you that I am overwhelmed, curious, and excited. While there are many facets of medical librarianship very similar to “general” librarianship, there are also many intricacies that I am still, and will continue to be, learning about. (Here is a quick primer about medical librarianship.) Medical librarians are called health sciences librarians, medical informationists, hospital librarians, or sometimes a health-related term isn’t even in their title. At times, their responsibilities may coincide with the sciences. Other times, they may serve the social sciences as well! So medical librarians can wear many hats and be in all types of environments including academic, hospital, governmental, and others!

I was disappointed that my LIS program didn’t offer many courses in this field. And after taking a quick survey from fellow HLS writers, it doesn’t seem that there are too many course offerings or tracks in LIS programs for this. MLA, however, does provide a list of programs with health science information courses. The University of Oklahoma MLIS program does have a Health track that lists courses related to this specialty. I do believe this is something that more LIS programs should invest in this since there are 2,645 health science libraries inside the U.S. and 2,428 outside of the U.S. BUT this doesn’t mean you have to have a health background before entering the profession. While I do have a health sciences background working as a speech therapist, I have met and spoken to MANY that do not have this background and have flourished in the profession.

So here are some tidbits for learning about and tackling any qualms about this aspect of librarianship:

Don’t Let Big Terms Scare You!

You don’t have to know what dyspepsia, ideomotor apraxia, and/or salivary pellicle is to be successful in the profession. (I seriously just looked those up and pasted them, and I am barely aware of what they entail). Yes, these terms might look big and scary, but it is NOT required to have this type of background to be a medical librarian. What is more important is the ability to ask questions, curiosity to learn about MeSH, and ask for help! So these are essentially reference skills. And of course, medical librarianship is not limited to reference. You can work within collections, digital scholarship, scholarly communication, data science, and more.

Do Some Informational Interviews

Since I was curious about medical librarianship, I did some informational interviews with medical librarians in academic institutions (since this is the setting I was interested in). This was tremendously helpful for not letting those big terms scare me. They also did a great job easing my anxiety about the intimidating nature of working with doctors and other health professionals. Yes, medical professionals have advanced degrees, but so do we! We know things they don’t and vice versa. This is why that partnership is so important. So network, learn, and watch your librarianship knowledge expand.

Join MLA!

No, MLA did not ask or pay me to say this 🙂 As I mentioned, I just went to my first MLA conference last week, and it was really helpful. Similar to ALA, they are invested in the professional development for medical librarians. Since there are so many aspects to this specialization, they have competencies, publications, and mentorship to guide others. Student membership is $50/year, and they also have opportunities for grants and scholarships for those new to the profession. If it seems overwhelming, feel free to ask them or me any questions!

Support from the National Library of Medicine

What I really have enjoyed about medical librarianship is that it is supported on a federal level by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). They are the source of PubMed, a database with a plethora of biomedical and life sciences citations. This federal support can improve real health outcomes for the public. Medical professionals receive funding from the NIH and are encouraged to comply with evidence-based medicine, which is directly linked to the competencies of being a medical librarian. Because of this, I feel that there is less of an ivory tower mentality to the field. NLM Director Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD, spoke at the MLA conference, and she was very committed to the work medical librarians do because we truly are proliferating information via NLM channels.


Slide from Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan’s presentation at the 2017 Medical Library Association conference in Seattle.

Take Health Science/Medical Librarianship Classes

 While there are some programs with health science information courses, not every institution offers these. And (I will repeat this ad infinitum), you do NOT need to have this background. However, it always helps to know more and to let your future employer know that you do have knowledge about this specialty. Some institutions in that list offer online programs, and you may not have to be enrolled in them to take a course. But you can also take a course on your own through a MOOC, through another department at your institution, or just do some reading on your own!


So there you have it! Hopefully this wasn’t too overwhelming. The biggest takeaway here is to take it one step at a time. This is coming from someone that is still a novice in the profession. However, I am starting to see that I can actually do this. And if I can do this, you can too!

Does your program offer any health science information courses? What is your impression of medical librarianship?


3 replies

  1. Nisha, wonderful to hear your thoughts on this. I fell into health sciences librarianship halfway through my grad program at UCLA, and have loved exploring the field. It’s a fascinating and supportive group to work amongst, and I strongly advocate for your recommendations. One thing to add: the NLM Associate Fellowship Program! For those with a specialization supported by classes, or just a honed focus like myself, this one-year postgraduate training fellowship and leadership program has transformed the way I look at institutions, services, and the profession. It’s definitely an opportunity for library students or recent graduates to explore.


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