So you want to be a medical librarian, perhaps? [Interview Edition]

Critical Knowledge for Challenging TimesAre you debating what type of library field you’d like to pursue after graduation? Has it been a challenge for you to sit down and decide your options? Would you ever considered a career in medical librarianship?

In honor of this year’s theme for National Medical Librarians Month – “Critical Knowledge in Challenging Times”, Hack Library School is giving you vital information about the field of medical librarianship from interviews with four fascinating medical librarians who work in universities, teaching hospitals, at the largest biomedical library in the world, and for a professional association serving 35,000 members.

Our first medical librarian is Sally Gore, an Embedded Research Librarian & Informationist at University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Lamar Soutter Library (Worcester, MA). She received her master’s degree from Syracuse University. (Twitter: @mandosally)

Followed by Ryan Cohen, a Reference and Customer Service Librarian at the National Library of Medicine (Bethesda, MD), who graduated from Florida State University’s Library and Information Studies program.

Next is Christian Minter, a National Library of Medicine Associate Fellow who currently works at John Hopkins University’s William H. Welch Medical Library (Baltimore, MD), and received her master’s degree from The Catholic University of America’s Library and Information Science program. (Twitter: LibGirl09)

And finally, Mark Vrabel, an Information Resource Supervisor for the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) Library. He received his master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh. (Twitter: @ONSmark)

What steps (if any) did you take in library school to prepare you for this field? 

Sally: I didn’t really take any purposeful steps in library school to be a health sciences librarian, but once on the job, I quickly found out that much of what I learned in classes like Digital Libraries, Information Architecture, and Information Policy was a real asset. I certainly didn’t know this when I was taking the courses, but was really pleased to have this background when I started working. It helped a lot.

Ryan: During the course of library school, I took classes centered on health information resources, virtual reference environments in medical/health sciences libraries, hospital library management, and information needs and behavior of the medical/health sciences community. In the Management of Information Organizations class, I was part of a team that designed a strategic plan for the David L. Reeves Medical Library. In the Virtual Reference Environments class, I designed a wiki guide of National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM) resource libraries that offer virtual reference services to the public.  In the Introduction to Information Services class, I volunteered with the Internet Public Library, and learned the basics of virtual reference and digital libraries by providing virtual reference health information services to the public.

Christian: Since most of my work experience was outside of medical libraries, I was very strategic about incorporating experiences or activities related to health sciences librarianship while in library school.

In addition to the informational interviews, I also reached out to local medical libraries and asked to shadow their librarians for a day (or just a few hours) so I could observe the type of activities they were involved in.  I think I shadowed at three different libraries.

I had a little bit of flexibility in my work schedule and very understanding supervisors, so I was able to complete a practicum at an academic medical library. I also interned for several months at a small medical library in a non-profit organization. Working full-time, interning part-time, and going to school part-time all at once was exhausting, but to me it was totally worth it.

I was only able to take one health sciences course in library school. However, I looked for opportunities to incorporate health sciences into my assignments for other courses. For a project where I had to evaluate two information resources, I compared consumer health books. For an instructional design project, I made a tutorial on conducting a subject search in the CINAHL Plus database (a database for nursing and allied health literature).

I sought out professional development opportunities. I received a scholarship to attend a conference for the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Medical Library Association. I also took free consumer health courses online through the Southeastern/Atlantic region of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine.

Mark: After discovering that teaching was not for me, I changed my undergraduate secondary education major to social sciences then began examining Masters programs that would be a natural “segue” of sorts, especially those that would result in a degree for which I would only be competing for jobs with others holding that same degree.

What drove you to consider a career in medical/health sciences librarianship?

Sally: I had to do an internship to finish my program at Syracuse and so I contacted two places that I thought would be interesting libraries to work in; The Portland (Maine) Press Herald newspaper and the Maine Medical Center. I probably liked the idea of being a news librarian most, but the librarian at the paper told me frankly that the future wasn’t great for news librarians – or newspapers, in general – and so I pursued an internship at Maine Medical Center’s library and the rest is history. J I also have degrees in exercise physiology, so the health angle fit well.

Ryan: One of my classes during library school drove me to consider a career in medical/health sciences librarianship. For the Virtual Reference Environments class, taught by Dr. Lori Mon, I designed a guide of National Network of Libraries of Medicine resource libraries that offer virtual reference services to the public. Exploring the medical/health sciences libraries and interviewing the medical/health sciences librarians proved to be an enlightening experience. Before this class, I never considered a career in medical/health sciences librarianship. If it weren’t for this class, I would never have pursued medical/health sciences librarianship further by doing a reference internship at the University of Pennsylvania Biomedical Library.

Christian: When I started library school, I had been working in a public library for a year. During the winter break I started researching career options in special libraries. That is when I discovered health sciences librarianship. I emailed several medical librarians who had job titles or worked in settings that interested me. They were more than happy to share about their experiences and offer advice on classes to take or specific skills that they thought were important to have. By the start of my second semester I had decided to become a medical librarian! I continued to work in the public library until I completed my degree. Following graduation, I was accepted into the NLM Associate Fellowship, and I am in my second year with this program. I love that I am involved in work that supports research and decision-making that will influence the quality of healthcare. I also enjoy being an environment where I am constantly learning new information.

Mark: I did not have a health sciences background before I began supporting the health education graduate students at the Penn State University libraries then later being employed at ONS. I had a generalist background both academically and in employment history, having worked in public and (non-medical) corporate libraries. Since being employed at ONS, I have completed two graduate courses at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing – “Nursing Theory and Research” and “Healthcare Outcomes” – as well as courses as part of its School of Information Sciences Certificate of Advanced Study in Health Sciences Librarianship. And I have completed a medical terminology course and regularly complete continuing education activities approved by MLA, ONS, and other accredited organizations. Basically, my everyday work combined with everything I do to earn or maintain my Academy of Health Information Professionals (AHIP), American Medical Writers Association (AMWA), and Editors in the Life Sciences (ELS) credentials serves as professional development that enhances my qualifications for the “medical” part of “medical librarian” even though that was not my original background.

The Medical Library Association’s theme for this year is Critical Knowledge for Challenging Times, how does this resonate where you work?

Sally: I think that one thing health sciences librarians need to remember is that we’re not, as a profession, being singled out. It’s really difficult to find any profession today, particularly one that deals with information, that doesn’t require those in it to continue to develop new skills, hone existing skills, and push the boundaries of what we once thought defined us. I think that the critical knowledge that we possess is a skill set that can help people address the overwhelming volume of information that they face each day. This is a huge challenge for those in health care and biomedical research, and I believe my skills as a librarian make me a unique part of these teams.

Ryan: While health information on the Internet is abundant and sometimes overwhelming, it is not easily found and in many cases not trustworthy. Every day, hundreds of library staff at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) demonstrates the library’s value and the contributions we make to improve the overall state of health information found on the Internet with hundreds of our electronic products. With thousands of people around the world using our products each day, this allows us to absorb the critical knowledge we need to assess the present and future purpose and goals of the library by delivering trustworthy health information through our products in this rapidly evolving and challenging digital age of health information.

Christian: I’m still new to my workplace, but what has impressed me in the short time I’ve been at Welch Library is the nontraditional delivery of services and the library’s continued efforts to stay attuned to the needs of their patrons. The motto here is “Welch Library: Wherever You Are!” The informationists (that is what we call our librarians) are embedded within the departments at Johns Hopkins University and take their services to the patrons. Critical knowledge is provided through expert literature searches, guest lectures in university courses and seminars, participating on systematic review teams, attending rounds and case reports at the hospital, providing funding to support publishing in open access journals and much more! I like that the informationists present themselves as collaborators and partners in the institution’s research and education activities. In order to understand the needs of the patrons, the informationists also conduct research of their own. You can read about their pilot study on clinical questions and health care provider’s information-seeking behavior in the July 2014 issue of the Journal of the Medical Library Association. During my time here, I’m looking forward to participating in an upcoming needs assessment project to explore opportunities to expand services for global health activities at Hopkins. The ability to stay in touch with the broad scope of patrons’ needs within such a large institution, and effectively demonstrate and communicate how the library can meet those unique needs is very important.

Mark: The “Challenging Times” part reminds me that librarians are continually adapting to change and demonstrating their value. For the “Critical Knowledge” part, everything I do as part of our Putting Evidence Into Practice (PEP) involves critical knowledge pertaining to cancer symptoms; specifically, it informs nurses and other healthcare professionals where various interventions fall in the following categories, based on a thorough, ongoing review of the available evidence:

  • Recommended for Practice
  • Likely to Be Effective
  • Benefits Balanced With Harm
  • Effectiveness Not Established
  • Effectiveness Unlikely
  • Not Recommended for Practice
  • Expert Opinion

What advice would you like to impart to current and future LIS students who are considering a career in medical/health sciences librarianship?

Sally: This is a great question, especially since I’m currently teaching the health sciences librarianship course at the University of Rhode Island. My advice to my students there and elsewhere… Sell yourself! One of the things that I see happening in settings like mine (an academic medical school and research center) is that there is never a shortage of work for a person who can match his/her skill set to existing needs. And there are LOTS of existing needs. The key is to really know what you know how to do, know what you need to learn how to do (and learn it – ESPECIALLY if you’re weak in the sciences), and then know how to show people that what you bring is uniquely useful to them. I don’t necessarily think that this means you wait around and look for job openings in medical libraries, but that you also keep your eye on other parts of the health care system or biomedical research where what you can do fits. People looking for help often don’t think of a librarian as one who could do the job for them, but I think that’s mostly because we haven’t done the best job of selling ourselves. Know yourself, have confidence (even if you have to fake it at first), and put yourself in places that offer you opportunity.

Ryan: My advice is to get experience early by working in a medical/health sciences library while you are in library school. This could be a paraprofessional position, an internship, or volunteering. Networking with as many medical/health sciences librarians is also imperative. This could be through a medical library listserv, interviewing your local medical/health sciences librarians, or going to conferences.

Christian: Take some time to learn about the field and the different library settings and positions available. Informational interviews and shadowing are a great way to do this. Ask lots of questions!

Get as much relevant work experience as possible before you finish your degree. I know not everyone has this opportunity. So I definitely encourage you to tailor your class projects to focus on some aspect of health sciences information services or resources. Use these projects to demonstrate “work experience” during job interviews.

Take advantage of student rates to join the Medical Library Association as well as your local MLA chapter. There are also scholarships to attend conferences.

Look for continuing education activities. Besides professional library organizations, also consider that some universities offer Mini Med Schools that are open to the public. They usually include a variety of topics related to healthcare and basic science.

There are a lot of free webinars and online classes offered through the National Network of Libraries of Medicine on technology trends, consumer health, NLM resources, and more. Each region has its own webpage with a list of upcoming educational opportunities (you can take classes outside of your region).

Mark: The more tech-savvy you are, the better. In my personal experiences, it has been a rewarding career full of variety. Completing a field experience or internship at a medical/health sciences library is a good way to gauge interest and aptitude; I completed one in a special (but not medical) library setting, and Dr. Ellen Detlefsen at the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences periodically assigns students to do site visits or field experiences with me at the ONS library. In the summer of 2012, one of these students completed his field experience with me and soon after landed a full-time medical librarian position at Arizona State University.  I have Skyped with LIS students, speaking about my position and answering their career-related questions – a brief recap of one such session appears on page 6 of the Spring 2012 issue of The Confluence.

This one’s a toughy…who’s your favorite musical artist or band?

Sally: This IS hard. I play music, as you know. I play the mandolin and guitar and drums and ukulele and banjo and any other thing that I can get my hands on. I discovered the joy of playing music and being in a band later in life, and it’s truly changed me. It’s such a joy. So, as it’s such a part of me, it’s awfully hard to pick any singular favorite. I do love really good singer-songwriters though, so I guess if you pushed me to pick, I’d say my favorite artist is Rosanne Cash. I’ve had the chance to meet her a few times and she is as genuine and nice as she is talented. And her latest CD is my favorite of the past year. It’s tremendous.

Ryan: My favorite band is Linkin Park.

Christian: Hmmm, one of my favorites is jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby. A friend recently introduced me to her music. Growing up I always wanted to learn to play the harp, but I only associated the instrument with classical music. So to hear it featured in jazz compositions is very cool – and reignites my interest in learning the instrument. I doubt I can reach her level of expertise, but one can dream!

Mark: The Smiths. I never saw them in concert (in person) but I’ve seen Morrissey and Johnny Marr shows in Pittsburgh. Maybe being recent nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame means a reunion is imminent? Hardly – to this day I’m sure their collective attitude is What Difference Does It Make?

One big THANK YOU for all four librarians who took the time to share their insight! We hope this has made your career choices somewhat easier.

To learn more general information about this profession visit the Medical Library Association’s website and check out this post about the daily roles of hospital librarians. If you’re on Twitter, check out our interviewee’s accounts and follow the #medlibs hashtag discussion. If you enjoy listservs, add yourself to the MedLib-ListServ where you can keep current on issues related to medical libraries, as well as, job postings.

Leave comments below about your interest in medical librarianship or if you already are a medical librarian, consider providing additional advice for our LIS readers.

Ciao for now,

(Twitter: @msbooksy)

Editor’s note: this post was originally published on October 27, 2014.

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