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Different Cultures and Experiences in Medical Librarianship – Hospital Libraries

One of the great things about being in a medical library association is getting to know colleagues who perform work either different from our own or the same type of work but in a different culture or environment. Many of us in ALHeLA work mainly in an academic setting and have built-in institutional support due to the not-insignificant role of libraries in the world of education. The extended schedules of the academic world provide us with the time and flexibility, while working with students and faculty can be considered more laid-back (at least in my experience) than perhaps in other settings.

It is easy to forget in this setting that not every medical librarian works within the same context. During a recent UAB library staff meeting on Zoom, a couple of presentations piqued my interest in the day-to-day ins-and-outs of different types of medical librarians, particularly those who work within the hospital setting. While some hospital libraries are still part of a university and therefore have the institutional support that I mentioned earlier, others within a hospital-only setting may be subject to the budgetary whims of an administration that may not fully understand the benefits that a library brings. And both types of hospital libraries have patrons who often need answers immediately and are not provided the time that others of us are afforded.

With all of the in mind, I thought it would be interesting for ALHeLA members to read about the experiences of all types of different librarians in the medical community, and hospital librarianship is a great introduction for that. I asked Tracy Powell from the Lister Hill Library at UAB University Hospital and Alanna Cole from the Kahn-Sibley Medical Library at Grandview Medical Center to provide us with some insight into their day-to-day experiences and I’m grateful that they were more than happy to share.

My Experience as a New Medical Librarian

By Alanna Cole, MA, MLIS

Kahn-Sibley Medical Library at Grandview Medical Center

The Position

I am the hospital librarian at the Kahn-Sibley Medical Library located at Grandview Medical Center in Birmingham, Alabama.  I have been employed at Kahn-Sibley since January 2021 and graduated with my MLIS from the University of Alabama in spring 2019. 

The library is not open to the public and serves primarily any hospital staff members that deal with patient care.  The residents and physicians are the most frequent patrons of the library.

Perks of the Job

One of my favorite things about my position as a hospital librarian is it allows me to “multitask.”  For someone who enjoys getting to do a little bit of everything, a position like mine is ideal.  Each day comes with its own unique to-do list.  When in library school, the question, “Would you rather work in public or tech services?” came up quite a bit.  I never could make up my mind.  I enjoy helping others, and I naturally feel most comfortable teaching since I have a background in education.  However, I also like the coolness of archives and the orderliness and processes of acquisitions and cataloging.  In my current position, I do not have to pick between public or tech services librarianship, which is a dream come true to me! 

Being a hospital librarian typically means being on your own or with a very minimal staff, so the responsibility of interlibrary loan, collection development, cataloging, reference and research, instruction, and everything in between falls in your lap.  I love the variety of tasks and responsibilities that come my way each day! 

Hurdles to Overcome

One of the main duties of my position is to conduct literature searches.  As a former teacher, I always have the urge to give as much information as possible to the physicians and residents to help them with their education and patient care.  However, they don’t always want or need all of that information.  The doctors are usually without time or energy to spare, so they want the best of the information available.  It can be difficult (and sometimes daunting) to narrow down the results, especially when you feel like you would rather teach how to use the resources directly to the patron or give a ton of information like you would to a student conducting a research project.  When a surgeon says, “find 1 or 2 articles,” he or she means exactly that.  I would say I want to work on fine tuning my ability to select the most relevant and best information for the literature searches I complete.  Honing in on the best article out of a ton is a skill that comes with experience, so it is something I am eager to continue practicing as I grow as a medical librarian.

Of course, there is always the ever familiar remark, “I did not know there was a library in the hospital?!” as well.  Outreach to educate on the value of the hospital library and librarian is something that is imperative.  Shrinking budget, space, collection, etc. are constant forces against a hospital library, so the medical librarian must prioritize stating the importance of the library.  A medical library can be moved, just like the Kahn-Sibley Medical Library was down sized and moved last year to make room for new OBGYN beds, or the higher ups may not see the value of the librarian position and think it is something that can be done away with all together.  I want to work on reaching out to more physicians and nurses at Grandview Medical Center in hopes to make them key advocates of the library; this will require innovation and a little creativity! 

Of course there are a ton of other advantages and disadvantages to being a hospital librarian.  The position definitely requires certain aptitudes: research and reference skills (Yes, it can be intimidating to ask the radiologist what he meant by that abbreviation, but it is important for the reference interview), organization (What exactly is on the agenda today and needs to be prioritized?), communication and outreach (One of these days I will have perfected my elevator speech!), and a willingness to develop professionally (I don’t know what an API is or how to code one, but I am learning currently…I am not a world’s leading expert on anything, but I am willing to learn just about everything!).  If you ever feel like trying out hospital librarianship, don’t be scared to make the leap!  Look for strong mentorship (most thanks to Elizabeth Laera for being one of mine) and keep an open mind as you learn a different way to serve library patrons.

Librarian Life in a University Hospital

By Tracy Powell

Lister Hill Library at UAB University Hospital

UAB’s academic medical center is focused on providing patient care in an environment of learning and research.  The hospital has approximately 1200 beds and over 1000 medical residents, as well as many other clinical providers training and being trained while providing high volumes of complex care.  Everyone is incredibly busy and has many competing demands on their time, tending to be more focused on evaluating and using information than on learning how to find it.  So, much of our role is making sure information is easily usable, either on their own or with our expertise. 

Although the hospital library is part of the larger academic library organization at UAB, in many ways we function more like a corporate library than an academic one, in order to meet the needs of our various users as they work in the clinical environment.  We have to reach out to them in ways that work for them, rather than expecting them to appreciate our intrinsic value and to think about coming to us when they need help.  We are so much more than what many think of as “library”, and it takes ongoing effort on our part to demonstrate our value.  Some of what we do is traditional, like literature searches, identifying and locating books and articles, finding sources of good patient education, and teaching information skills to individuals or groups.  We also use our unique skills to facilitate their work in other ways, through participation on goal-focused work groups and task forces addressing patient care and research, and supporting Magnet goals and evidence-based nursing practice.

We have a very large, very diverse clientele.  Our role is to use our skills and resources to facilitate their work in any way we can.  Everyone benefits when clinical library services are a valuable partner in the education, research, and patient care goals of the health system.

1 Comment

  1. Monica Hodge

    Very excellent and insightful articles! It’s so great to learn about the vital roles medical and hospital librarians play with ensuring clinicians and healthcare professionals receive reputable information towards patient treatment.

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