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Career Strategies for Librarians
Medical Librarianship:  A Niche for Every Interest
by Laura Townsend Kane

At the reference desk this morning, I received a call from a court reporter who could not determine the
spelling of a phrase for her transcription.  “On my recording,” she said, “it sounds like ‘monty video units’
or ‘mounted video units.”  She explained that the phrase involves the measurement of uterine
contractions.  Intrigued, I began by searching a print textbook (because, believe it or not, the printed word
is still sometimes useful!) but could find no reference to video units in an ob/gyn context.  I then did a
Web search and found a vague reference to “monte video units.”  Going back to the textbook, I checked
the index and – Eureka! – found numerous entries for “Montevideo units” which turns out to be a concept
for measuring uterine activity developed by physicians from Montevideo, Uruguay (1).  This was an odd
reference quest, but a fun one.

I am not a reference librarian.  The above is just an example of one of my various responsibilities.  I’ll
give you some more clues to see if you can guess my job title:

Last week a new website of geriatric resources for physicians was launched.  I am a member of the
team of librarians and physicians who developed the website.  Also last week, on top of my regular job
duties, I finished weeding through an 8,000-volume collection of psychiatric books recently donated to
our library.  I taught a Microsoft PowerPoint class, gave a demo of our online catalog, attended a number
of meetings, and submitted some book purchase requests.

Next week I plan to attend an electronic textbook demo at the main university library.  I also have a staff
meeting, a Collection Development meeting, and a library reception scheduled.  There is a Hispanic
Literacy Summit coming up, as well as a Teleconference at the library school, and I’m scheduled to give
a presentation about library resources to new faculty.  In the spring I will likely attend a conference in
Washington, D.C., and another in Biloxi, Mississippi in the fall.  I supervise two departments, I am
involved with various committees, and in my free time I do research and writing for publication.

I am a medical librarian.  More specifically, I am a cataloger in an academic medical library.  My job title
is Head of Cataloging & Acquisitions.  Did you guess correctly?  When I accepted this position ten years
ago, I never dreamed my job would involve such a diverse array of responsibilities.  I thought I would take
the job and keep my eye open for something more interesting.  Turns out there was no need to look
around, because all of my interests were fulfilled and then some!  I have learned that no matter how
unique a person’s interests, there is a niche for him or her somewhere in the field of medical
librarianship.

Overview of Medical Librarianship:
Since the field of medical librarianship is often classed under “special librarianship,” many people think
that career opportunities are limited.  This is not so.  In an age where health-related information is in
high demand, medical librarians have become invaluable to the healthcare community.  Known also as
health sciences librarians, medical librarians work in a variety of settings. Each librarian’s job duties are
determined by the type of library in which he or she works, the particular position he or she holds, and
the patron groups the library is meant to serve.

Academic health sciences librarians typically work in medical school libraries and serve medical
students, faculty, healthcare practitioners, and often the general healthcare consumer.  At the medical
school library where I work, each of the six librarians manages a different department.  We have a Head
of Reference and Interlibrary Loan, a Circulation Librarian, a Serials Librarian, a Head of Cataloging &
Acquisitions (that’s me!), a Systems Librarian, and a Library Director.  In such a relatively small library,
we are all involved in some level of cross training.  In addition to our regular managerial and supervisory
duties, we each staff the Reference Desk periodically, teach classes to students and faculty, and stay
involved in any number of school or university-wide projects and committees.  Our schedules differ from
day to day, and we all find it refreshing to work in such a dynamic environment.

Clinical librarians, also known as hospital librarians, work in hospitals or clinics and provide rapid
delivery of medical information to support patient care, education, and research.  They typically work
closely with physicians, interns, nurses, allied health professionals, and patients.  An exciting aspect of
this particular job is that clinical librarians often accompany physicians on their clinical rounds.  The
librarian is considered a member of the healthcare team and can provide case-specific medical
information practically on the spot.  Clinical librarians thrive on the possibility that on any given day their
work might help to make a patient’s stay in the hospital easier or help a physician to make a critical
healthcare decision.   

Consumer health librarians commonly serve the health information needs of patrons in public libraries.  
The healthcare environment of today places great emphasis on patient health education.  Consumers
now engage in research of their own to increase their knowledge of treatments and procedures and to
reduce fear and anxiety about their conditions.  This has resulted in a demand for quality information
written in lay terminology, which in turn has increased the demand for librarians specially trained to
locate and disseminate this information.  Consumer health librarians find satisfaction in helping people
– often desperate people – find health information for themselves or for their loved ones.  
There are many other medical librarian positions within various organizations such as government
agencies, Internet companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, research centers, veterinary hospitals,
and even zoos.  Wherever there is a need for health-related information, there is a role for a medical
librarian.  Some positions carry the traditional “librarian” title, while others do not.  Despite the variety of
job titles, medical librarians share common professional interests such as delivery of health care,
changing medical technologies, medical terminology, healthcare information on the Internet, institutional
accreditation, and medical and professional ethics.  They also share the satisfaction of filling an
indispensable role in the health information industry.

Required Education and Training:

You might imagine that any medical librarian position would require an educational background in
science at the very minimum.  This is not always the case.  I, for instance, have an undergraduate
degree in Spanish!   Most positions require a master’s degree in library and information science from
and ALA-accredited institution.  Additional education and professional experience required varies from
job to job, of course, but don’t rule out medical librarianship simply because your background is in the
arts or the humanities.  A lot of the necessary skills, such as a grasp of medical terminology, can be
learned on-the-job.  However, if you do have the opportunity to take a medical librarianship course or a
medical terminology course in library school, don’t miss that chance!  Likewise, don’t pass up a chance
to do an internship in a medical library.  It’s a good way to learn more about the profession and to gain
work experience at the same time.  Any direct experience or training will give you an advantage over
others when applying for positions.   

To help you determine what professional skills you might want to build for yourself, below is a list of the
common responsibilities of medical librarians:

·        Locate quality print and electronic health-related resources for patrons

·        Instruct patrons in the retrieval and application of health information

·        Develop content and design materials for instructional purposes

·        Develop, design, navigate, and maintain websites

·        Evaluate advanced information technologies as related to medicine

·        Select and purchase books, journals, and other health-related resources

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

·        Work on teams and serve on committees within the library and organization

·        Plan, budget, and manage library programs and services

·        Engage in research, publishing, and other scholarly activities (2)

Professional Development:

Medical librarians, just like all professional librarians, must strive to keep up-to-date with changing
technologies and issues in librarianship.  This can be accomplished by attending continuing education
courses, reading professional literature, maintaining memberships in national organizations (such as
the Medical Library Association), and, in particular, attending conferences and seminars.  Whether you
are a rookie medical librarian or an experienced one, nothing is more valuable than forming lasting
professional relationships with peers in the field.  Medical librarians enjoy sharing with others the
knowledge and experience they gain from working in such an exciting field.  Consider becoming a
medical librarian!  There is an ideal position waiting for you somewhere.

For more information about medical librarianship, visit the Medical Library Association website at http:
//www.mlanet.org.

References:

(1)   Cunningham, F. Gary, Ed.  Williams Obstetrics, 21st ed.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.

(2)   Kane, Laura Townsend.  Straight From the Stacks: A Firsthand Guide to Careers in Library and
Information Science.  Chicago: ALA Editions, 2003.

About the Author:

Laura Townsend Kane is Head of Cataloging & Acquisitions at the University of South Carolina School of
Medicine Library.  She is the author of “Access Versus Ownership” in the Encyclopedia of Library and
Information Science (Dekker, 2003) and Straight From the Stacks: A Firsthand Guide to Careers in
Library and Information Science (ALA Editions, 2003).  

Article published March 2004

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