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Career Strategies for Librarians
The Accidental Academic Health Sciences Librarian
by Kevin Baggett

  When I applied to library school, I had only one general idea of what I wanted to do with my MLIS.  I
dreamed of working in a college library in an idyllic campus setting, serving the research needs of an
academic community.  I partially achieved this goal with my first professional position, but the setting
isn't quite what I visualized.  Instead of a large, majestic, cathedral-like campus library, my college's
library building was converted from an abandoned ophthalmology clinic.  My corner office was once a
patient exam room!  I have the fluorescent lights to prove it.  Instead of being on a library staff made up of
a dozen professional librarians and potential mentors, I am one of three professional librarians on staff.  
Did I mention that one of them is the dean?  Instead of working as a subject liaison in one of my
undergraduate or graduate disciplines at a large public university like I wanted, I serve as the liaison to
an entire School of Arts and Sciences at a tiny private college.  This may sound like sour grapes, but this
first job out of SLIS has provided me with valuable, varied library career experience that I might not have
gotten anywhere else.   

Adapting to the Organization

  The college in which I work is an affiliate of a regional medical center. The college library serves the
research needs of the hospital to the best of its ability because the medical center currently has no
library facility of its own.  The college offers degrees in health sciences, medicine, nursing, and various
other health related disciplines to prepare students to work in the parent medical center and other
hospitals around the state.  This sort of hybrid academic-clinical library setting makes for a unique work
experience and is certainly not what I envisioned coming out of library school.

  The key to getting by during your first year in an academic health sciences library is to build strong
relationships with the faculty, who are the experts in the subjects you are responsible for.  Also try to
teach yourself as much of the material as you can.  Having handy access to a Taber's Cyclopedic
Medical Dictionary will help you understand the medical jargon that your students and faculty will lob at
you during reference hours and instructional sessions.   

Health Sciences Librarianship

  At first, the task of developing a collection and acting as a liaison for subjects in which I had no
academic background in seemed daunting.  Once I dove into the job, however, I learned that the basics
that I learned in library school classes and graduate assistantships were applicable to the academic
medical library world as well.  You must be able to do the following:

Locate quality print and electronic resources for patrons

Instruct patrons in the retrieval of health information

Develop content and design materials for instructional purposes

Develop, design, navigate, and maintain websites

Select and purchase books, journals, and electronic resources

Organize books, journals, and other resources for ease of use  

  Do these sound familiar?  They should.  Becoming a medical or academic health sciences librarian
does not require any special training outside of library school or any particular undergraduate or
graduate school discipline.  However, I recommend that any students interested in medical librarianship
take a related course or complete an internship while in library school.   

Varied Responsibility

I was hired to be the public services librarian with my primary duties being instruction and circulation.  
During my first month of employment, the access services librarian left for another position in the college
which left us with only two professionals on staff.  Due to budget constraints during that fiscal year, we
were unable to fill the empty position, so I took on local system administration, collection development,
electronic resources coordination, and interlibrary loan duties on top of my primary duties.  I have had the
opportunity to try on just about every possible hat a librarian can wear and I’ve only been out of school for
a year!

During my first year on the job, I created the library’s first information literacy plan, taught many
orientation and information literacy sessions, help build the print collections up to a respectable level,
and negotiated purchases of an e-book collection and electronic databases.  I’ve fulfilled interlibrary loan
requests, written articles in the campus newsletter, supervised student workers and paraprofessionals
at the circulation desk, and sat in on many college administrative committees.  This experience has
given me a taste of almost every aspect of librarianship and a clearer picture of what I would like to focus
on if I move on to another position.  By doing a little bit of everything, I have found what I like best and
what I like least about being a librarian.    

  Recently, we were able to hire another librarian to fill the third professional opening and the duties of
our staff have been more equally distributed.  With a little more time on my hands, I have been able to
reflect on the drawbacks to juggling so many responsibilities.  Obviously, there is the feeling that you are
stretched too thin and are responsible for too much.  Yes, you learn to manage your time more effectively
by giving each of your areas of responsibility equal time, but some things will still go neglected.  

An old cliché comes to mind when I think of the kind of catchall position I held during my first year as a
professional: “jack of all trades, master of none.”  Basically, I was able to hold my own and learn the
many facets of being a librarian, but I still do not feel like an expert in any one area of my job.  Expertise
usually comes with doing one or two things and doing them well, something one cannot experience in a
position where he is expected to do it all.  I feel like I am learning more each day and becoming more
confident in my abilities.  With another professional on staff, I am now able to focus on fewer areas and
complete those fewer tasks with more depth and understanding.    

Size Matters

  Not all academic health science libraries will offer this sort of à la carte experience, but there will be
some sort of cross training in most of them because these libraries tend to be smaller than regular
academic libraries.  Obviously, the size of the institution determines how much responsibility any entry-
level librarian will be expected to take on during the first year.  Other factors, such as budget limitations
and size of the collection, will also vary greatly.  Many academic health science libraries tied to major
state and private universities have at least one professional responsible for a single traditional library
department like Circulation, Reference, Collection Development, Interlibrary Loan, Electronic Resources,
Technical Services, and Instruction.

In Conclusion

  Library school graduates looking for that first professional job in a medical or academic library should
look at academic health science libraries.  These libraries offer a happy medium between the two types
of libraries and will give you valuable experience as you work towards the next phase in your career.  
New graduates should also consider the size of the library to which they are applying.  If you are unsure
about which aspect of academic or medical librarianship you want to focus on, then working for a
smaller school will likely provide you with varied responsibilities and give you a little taste of
everything.       

About the Author:

Kevin Baggett is a graduate of the University of Mississippi with a BA in Political Science and a Master’s
of Library and Information Science from Louisiana State University.  He currently serves as the Access
Services and Collection Development Librarian at Our Lady of the Lake College in Baton Rouge,
Louisiana.  

Article published Feb 2008

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