Thursday, March 15, 2012

So You Want To Be a Medical Librarian, by Alison Aldrich

Nine years ago, I was wrapping up graduate school and looking for my first professional librarian position. I was thrilled to find out I’d been granted an interview at an academic health sciences library, but I was at a loss for how to prepare. I hadn’t really been focusing on medical librarianship as a possible career path. The career services office put me in touch with a helpful alumna who emailed me what amounted to a crash course in medical librarianship. It worked and I got the job. Nearly a decade and two positions later, I am still happy to call myself a medical librarian. In the interest of paying it forward, here is my advice to those of you who are considering medical librarianship today.

About that science background…
Many medical library job descriptions list a science background as a desired qualification. If you’ve got it, you should definitely flaunt it, but if you don’t, it’s not the end of the world. You should be curious about how bodies work, willing to learn, and not easily intimidated by the likes of scientists and brain surgeons. It also helps if you’re not squeamish. If you can picture yourself spending an enjoyable afternoon working on a literature search about bowel obstructions, medical librarianship might be the career for you.

The M word
Marketing, marketing, marketing. This advice goes for any kind of librarianship, really, but if you are offered a position as a hospital librarian, be prepared never to stop proving your worth. Librarians provide critical support for healthcare quality, but libraries don’t bring in the big bucks for healthcare organizations. Without specific examples of how you are making a difference, your library could look like an easy target to a hospital administrator at budget cutting time. Get to know your administrators. Make sure you have champions among the clinical faculty who are willing to vouch for you. Definitely get out from behind that library desk. Be flexible about taking on roles that aren’t traditionally library-ish, like helping to implement a new electronic medical record system, getting involved in knowledge management, or serving on a patient safety committee. Success is possible! For more information about hospital librarianship and its associated challenges, check out the Vital Pathways Project.

Understand how medical education works
MCATs, four years of medical school, this crazy thing called Match Day, a year of internship, three to five years of residency, maybe a fellowship, three levels of board certification exams… Understanding the process of becoming a doctor in the United States (or wherever you are) is important for figuring out how to make yourself indispensible. The same concept applies to nurses, dentists, pharmacists, physician assistants, chiropractors or any other professional group you might be serving. Recognize that the healthcare team is made up of multiple players, including you, and that each player has a distinct role. Know about scope of practice (who does what) and how the level of responsibility increases through the educational process. This will give you a big head start when it comes to interpreting and drawing out your patrons’ information needs.

Make friends with PubMed
PubMed is the National Library of Medicine’s taxpayer funded, freely available interface to the MEDLINE database, which is an extremely comprehensive index to the world’s biomedical journal literature. Because it’s free, it’s universal, so if you are going to learn an interface in preparation for job interviews, this should be the one. Learn how to develop a good PubMed search strategy using keywords, controlled vocabulary (Medical Subject Headings or MeSH), and limits. Plenty of online tutorials are available to help you get started.

More than buzzwords
Evidence-based medicine and health information literacy are important concepts in medical librarianship right now. Do some homework so you can be prepared to talk about these topics if and when they come up in a job interview.

Physicians practice evidence-based medicine when they factor the best available research information into decisions about how to care for individual patients. To the uninitiated, this might seem like a given. Surely your doctor is keeping up with the best evidence… right? Well, it’s not so simple. Consider that hundreds of thousands of new biomedical research articles are published every year. Consider, too, that medicine is an art as well as a science. Some physicians might bristle at the suggestion of evidence-based medicine because they feel it underestimates the importance of their own clinical judgment and experience, or they might see it as a cost-control measure standing in the way of what’s best for individual patients. True evidence-based medicine is supposed to incorporate scientific evidence, clinical judgment, and patient values. The librarian’s job is to make sure the scientific evidence piece finds its proper place.

Health information literacy is the set of skills and abilities we all need in order to find, understand, and appropriately act on information having to do with our health. As a medical librarian, some of the most challenging reference questions you ever answer will come from patients and their families. Become familiar with reliable sources of consumer health information. MedlinePlus is a great place to start. Recognize, too, that sometimes the best thing you have to offer a worried patient or family member is a sympathetic ear.
Medical librarianship just might be the most dynamic, rewarding career path you never thought about pursuing. If this post has piqued your interest, I encourage you to get connected with medical librarian community. We have a great association, Medical Library Association, an active listserv (details here: and our very own Twitter hashtag, #medlibs. I wish you the best of luck as you prepare for those interviews.

Alison Aldrich recently started a new position as Clinical Informationist at the Ohio State University. Follow her on Twitter @aldricham


  1. Really good advice for anyone starting out and reminders to those already submerged in the profession

  2. Alison, you nailed it - great piece!

  3. Thanks! I'm glad you think it's good advice. Medical librarians: do you have anything else to add?

  4. This is a great post; you've said everything that I would want to say.

    My only addition would be professional development, but not by attending conferences and reading articles. Those are great things, but in order to stay up to date on medicine, health literacy, medical education, academic librarianship, the various resources available, etc taking classes and attending webinars are necessities. A good medical librarian has the knowledge and proper lingo to communicate with students, physicians, administrators, and the like. But because everything changes so much, you have to stay on top of things and keep yourself educated.

  5. Great point, Elizabeth. There are all kinds of online learning opportunities for medical librarians. This is a good thing since many of our libraries are cutting budgets for professional development and travel. NN/LM (my former employer, in the interest of full disclosure!) sponsors webinars and online classes anyone can attend for free.

  6. Hi Alison,
    I've been working as an Allied Health School Librarian for about three years now and am aiming to move towards higher education/hospital libraries. Not having a medical or science background, I'm wondering if you know of any prof. development or what courses to take to take to help me gain some extra necessary skills.

  7. Hello M - look for free online (or sometimes in person) professional development opportunities from your region of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine - or your regional Medical Library Association chapter. I have also started to explore some of the courses on Coursera to learn more about pharmacology and clinical decision-making.

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  9. Hello Alison. Thanks for this wonderful post. I graduated as an academic librarian twelve years ago. However, I've worked as a public librarian since I graduated. Public librarians are having to deal with budget cuts, digital books, (which keeps patrons away from the library) and a host of other issues. I have been thinking about becoming a medical librarian and I even have in mind the medical university I would like to work in. I have a four year old active daughter. I would want to continue having quality time with her while working full time and going to college. My preference would be online schools. Do you know any online school that offers online classes? I would love a college that just requires me to take just a few credits towards my degree. I hope my education and experience would count as credit. Thanks very much for your advice.

  10. Alison, you can address me as Mercy.

  11. Great post! I'm starting my first year in an MLIS program (specializing in medical librarianship) and your post offered excellent direction! Thanks!