That is the response I get from many librarians when I tell them I’m interested in medical librarianship. Health sciences, medical and hospital libraries are the red-headed step children of the library world, apparently.

I began to notice a trend during the first semester of library school. When I would tell the other MLS students what I was interested in pursuing, they all seemed so surprised. It made me wonder what it was about medical librarianship that caused such a strong reaction. Maybe it’s the science and technology that is off-putting. I know that it’s hard to get a lot of English majors excited about data analysis, informatics, and databases.

While working in the public library, my basic work week included: cutting out a million + 1 construction paper stars for a preschool story time craft, perusing Pinterest for teen program ideas, creating interactive displays for my public patrons and general collection management/public services duties. I excelled in whatever I worked on, but it wasn’t necessarily challenging. Even if I had planned for 25 kids and 75 showed up, or someone challenged a YA book because of content, I never felt particularly overwhelmed. Even though by all standards, I was swamped with work, it was “fun” work.

The work that I do now is immensely more challenging and I actually go home at the end of the day with questions to be answered by Google (or more specialized databases). I no longer make crafts, rarely do I get to make a display, and the “advisory” lists I create are now literature reviews for clinicians.  Instead of reading books entitled ttyl, I’m picking up Health Informatics for Medical Librarians.

While a good majority of my classmates are taking “Designing and Implementing Programs for Children and Young Adults,” or “Resources and Services for Early Learners,” I decided to delve into the more technical world of library science. There are a few brave people who are following the same path, but when I talk to the vast majority of my classmates they appear to be interested in public libraries or just general “academic libraries.” Few are interested in health science libraries, and even fewer want to work in a medical/clinical environment.

So, to get to the point, why not medical librarianship? Because for most, it’s not seen as “fun.” Unless you already have an interest in the health sciences, it’s not an easy transition from children’s programming to literature searches.

I should know, I did it.

Thankfully, my background in the health sciences and my passion for medicine gave me a leg-up. However, for many would-be-librarians, the prospect of searching for the effects of ivermectin on geohelminth frequency, or using PubChem to resource bioactivity data for 2-tert0butylhydroquinone is not only daunting, but down right uninteresting.

What can we do to change the way future librarians look at medical librarianship? Marketing! Many of the library students I talked to didn’t actually know what my job entailed. When I started to explain to them that I was able to utilize emerging technologies in instructional sessions, interface with clinicians through electronic media, research elusive zebra diseases, and even create some dynamic displays that promote subsets of medical literature they became increasingly interested in medical librarianship as a potential field.

“But Aroundthestacks, why do you want more competition for those already coveted positions?!”, you may ask.

Because I want to see information professionals working with health professionals to provide the best possible care! I don’t want medical librarianship to be a last resort for unemployed MLS grads. Instead I want courses taught within MLS/MLIS programs that prepare students for work in healthcare. Without the proper preparation, new grads will be faced with unfamiliar medical terminology, over complicated scientific databases, and a dim view of the role librarians have in healthcare as a whole.

I want LIS students to be excited about medical librarianship! I want them to see how valuable they can be to medical professionals, researchers, and medical students. I want a new generation of physicians who are comfortable searching the literature and utilizing evidence-based medicine in their practices. Librarians can complement physicians, especially when helping them to navigate the murky waters of medical literature and they have to be able to see that this partnership can work, but that has to start in graduate school…


5 thoughts on “But…why?

  1. Very reflective essay! Our field is continuing to change and evolve, and it is difficult to articulate what the roles and responsibilities will be tomorrow, or how to best utilize talents and become involved. there are so many opportunities for specialization and so much work to do. That being said, all libraries would benefit from deeper levels of subject expertise, data and assessment, innovation, technology and leadership. Unfortunately the perception of what a librarian is and does is sometimes difficult to change. Have you noticed that the people who (in any area of library science) are game-changers and innovators and bring advanced levels of expertise and information science usually do so from their own personal development plans, and not by following traditional professional paths?

    • A lot of innovation is “self created” and I definitely think that professional development is beneficial for information professionals as a whole, I would just like to see talents cultivated! I think that public libraries tend to be better at this than academic libraries, in so much as they have more freedom to pursue interests. If a public librarian is interested in programming for a particular age, they will more than likely be able to find support for that program. I know that many of the public librarians I collaborated with had an interest in the web development side of libraries and their administration pushed for them to take online courses (mostly free) so that they could help with the website.

      I just know that I would have liked to be able to tailor my graduate education more, and a lot of the courses “required” were definitely geared toward basic librarianship/public librarianship.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Hi HEARD AROUND THE STACKS, As a former medical librarian, I wholeheartedly endorse everything that you say. I loved my eight years in medical libraries (general & psych hospitals). Working with clinicians on their patient care, hospital policy and CPD activities was a fabulous challenge that made me ready for pretty much anything the profession has thrown at me since. It reinforced my desire to be an open, honest, client-centred & critically thinking librarian. And, the days that you find the information that no-one else has found & a clinician can apply it to save a life or seriously improve someone’s quality of life – WOW, that really shows you what our profession can mean to the world 🙂 More power to you!!!! Sandra

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