Medical librarians, also called medical information specialists, help doctors, patients, and other medical personnel find health information and select materials best suited to their needs. These specialized librarians work in hospitals, medical schools, corporations, and university medical centers.
Medical Librarian Career History
Over the years the duties of librarians have evolved along with the development of different kinds of libraries and the development of new technologies. As the medical field became more structured as a result of the popularity of managed health care programs, the need to organize, store, and retrieve archived materials, research, and other materials became increasingly important. Medical libraries were introduced to house these unique collections and with them came specialized staffing needs. Workers who were knowledgeable about medical topics, as well as who possessed strong information management skills, were hired to organize and retrieve information quickly for doctors, other medical professionals, and even for patients themselves. These libraries first were created within or near larger medical institutions as a way to store educational and research materials. As research and information has accrued, medical libraries have sprouted up in universities, corporations such as pharmaceutical companies, and large public libraries.
Medical Librarian Job Description
Much of a medical librarian’s job is similar to the work of a traditional librarian; he or she organizes, shelves, and helps people retrieve books, periodicals, and other sources. Medical librarians may also help people check out materials, stamp due dates, collect fines for past-due items, look for misshelved items or reshelve items, and work with electronic media on CD-ROMs, DVDs, or even on the Internet.
Because of the technical and even sensitive nature of the material, some medical libraries are not open to the public. Medical libraries in hospitals or clinics are typically used only by doctors and other medical staff who are retrieving information such as archived patient medical files. Medical school libraries are open solely for medical students and staff retrieving research conducted and/or written at the institution and other locations. Other medical libraries are open to the public, but have limited-access materials that are monitored by reference librarians. These workers must make sure only authorized individuals check out the materials and that items are properly signed out and recorded.
Some medical librarians do not deal with the public at all, instead working on the more technical tasks of ordering, cataloging, and classifying materials. These librarians select and order all books, periodicals, audiovisual materials, and other items for the library, evaluating newly published materials as well as seeking out older ones. In addition to traditional books, and magazines, modern medical libraries also contain electronic records, DVDs, films, filmstrips, slides, maps, and photographs. The selection and purchase of these is also the responsibility of the head medical librarian. These higher positions, therefore, have considerable influence over the quality and extent of a library collection.
Similar to other libraries, medical librarians must catalog all new additions by title, author, and subject in either card or computerized catalog files. Labels, card pockets, and barcodes must be placed on the items, and they must then be properly shelved. Books and other materials must be kept in good condition and, when necessary, repaired or replaced. In addition to ordering materials, medical librarians must also purchase, maintain, and evaluate the circulation system. Considerable technical knowledge of computer systems may be necessary in deciding upon the extent and scope of the proper circulation for the library.
Medical acquisitions librarians choose and buy books and other health-related media for the library. They must read product catalogs and reviews of new materials as part of the acquisitions decision process. They do not work with the public, but deal with publishers and wholesalers of new books, booksellers of out-of-print books, and distributors of audiovisual materials. When the ordered materials arrive, medical catalog librarians, with the aid of medical classifiers, classify the items by medical field, assign classification numbers, and prepare cards or computer records to help users locate the materials. Since many libraries have computerized the acquisitions and cataloging functions, it is now possible for the user to retrieve materials faster. Most automated libraries have phased out bulky card catalogs and provide users with small computer terminals instead.
Medical bibliographers usually work in research libraries, compiling lists of books, periodicals, articles, and audiovisual materials on selected topics in the health field. They also recommend the purchase of new materials.
Medical Librarian Career Requirements
If you are interested in becoming a medical librarian, be sure to take a full college preparatory course load. Focus on classes such as anatomy, biology, chemistry, and physics. Learning how to use a computer and conduct basic research in a library is essential. Developing these skills will not only aid in your future library work, but will also help you in college and graduate school.
If you are set on becoming a medical librarian, focus on science and health classes but also take broader curriculum such as English, foreign language, and history. These classes will help develop your research and writing skills—keys to becoming a good librarian. Most library schools don’t require specific undergraduate courses for acceptance, but a good academic record and reading knowledge of at least one foreign language is usually required. You should also consider taking classes that strengthen your skills in communications, writing, research methods, collection organization, and customer service, as well as maintenance and conservation.
Upon receiving your bachelor’s degree, you will need to earn a master’s degree to become a librarian. The degree is generally known as a master’s of library science (MLS), but in some institutions it may be referred to by a different title, such as a master’s of library and information science (MLIS). You should plan to attend a graduate school of library and information science that is accredited by the American Library Association (ALA). Currently, there are more than 55 ALA-accredited master’s programs. Some libraries do not consider job applicants who attended a nonaccredited school.
Because they work with such specialized materials, medical librarians must have a very strong background in the area in which they wish to work. Librarians working in the cardiology department of a library, for example, should have a different knowledge base than those working in pharmaceuticals. Most medical librarians have a degree in science in addition to their MLS. In some cases, a graduate or professional degree in the sciences is especially attractive to prospective employers. For work in research libraries, university libraries, or special collections, a doctorate may be required. A doctorate is commonly required for the top administrative posts of these types of libraries, as well as for faculty positions in graduate schools of library science.
Certification or Licensing
The Medical Library Association offers credentialing through membership in the Academy of Health Information Professionals (AHIP). Candidates submit a portfolio of their professional activities, which qualifies them for membership. Membership must be renewed every five years so continuing education is recommended. According to the AHIP, earnings for credentialed medical librarians are anywhere from 5 to 30 percent higher than that of noncredentialed medical librarians.
Medical librarians who work around people must have good interpersonal and communication skills. Sometimes the medical librarian has to figure out what the patron is looking for, say an obscure study on the effects of radiation therapy on a rare form of cancer, using clues or bits and pieces of information. Therefore, they should also be problem-solvers and good listeners. Because the hunt for a needed item or piece of information might take awhile, patience and perseverance are also useful qualities.
Exploring Medical Librarian Career
There are several ways you can explore the field of librarianship and medical librarianship in particular. As a student, you probably use the library all the time. Make the most of your public and school library when working on papers and other projects.
To explore the work of librarians, ask around at local libraries or your school library if they have need for an assistant or part-time worker. If they are unable to pay, offer your time for free. Experience with checking materials in and out at the circulation desk, shelving returned books, or typing title, subject, and author information on cards or in computer records will be useful in the future. In college, you might be able to work as a technical or clerical assistant in one of your school’s academic libraries.
Contact the Medical Library Association, the American Library Association, or other professional library organizations to inquire about student memberships. Most groups offer excellent mentoring opportunities as well. Finally, if you have an email account, sign up for one or more of the listservs offered by these groups. A listserv is an e-mail list of professionals throughout the world who consult each other on special topics. ALA members monitor a number of listservs for members and nonmembers.
Once in college, a great way to explore the specific nature of medical librarianship is through an internship with the National Library of Medicine. This institution offers associate fellowship positions to college and postgraduate students interested in training for leadership roles in health science libraries.
Medical librarians work in hospitals, medical schools, university medical centers, businesses, and large public libraries—anyplace that holds a collection of health information. Medical librarians work in institutions of all sizes, from a small branch office of a major university hospital or a large public library that serves many counties. A librarian in a smaller library may have duties in all areas of librarianship: ordering, cataloging, shelving, and circulating health information, as well as acting as reference librarian. On the other hand, a librarian at a larger institution may work in one or two specialized sections, such as a prenatal or oncology collection.
Businesses and organizations also employ medical library professionals. Special librarians manage health information for businesses, nonprofit corporations, and government agencies. The materials collected usually pertain to areas of particular interest to the organization, such as pharmaceuticals or specific diseases such as diabetes or breast cancer.
Generally, medical librarians must complete all educational requirements before applying for a job. Part-time or volunteer work experience while in graduate school may turn into a full-time position upon graduation.
Upon graduation, new medical librarians should consult the career services office at their school. Employers seeking new graduates often recruit through library schools. Most professional library and information science organizations have job listings that candidates can consult. Also, many online job search engines can help medical librarians find an appropriate position. Newspaper classifieds may be of some help in locating a job, although other approaches may be more appropriate to this specialty.
The beginning medical librarian may gain experience by taking a job as an assistant, performing more basic duties such as checking books in and out. Shelving returned books, and checking the stacks for misfiled items. As they gain experience, the medical librarian can advance to perform more administrative functions, such as payroll and hiring and training staff. Another possibility is to move into a purchasing role, securing new items for the medical collection and evaluating where needs are within the existing collection. Within a large medical library, promotions to higher positions are possible, for example, to the supervision of a department. Experienced librarians with the necessary qualifications may advance to positions in library administration. A doctorate is desirable for reaching top administrative levels, as well as for taking a graduate library school faculty position.
Salaries depend on such factors as the location, size, and type of library, the amount of experience the medical librarian has, and the responsibilities of the position. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, median annual earnings of all librarians in 2004 were $46,940. Salaries ranged from less than $29,890 to more than $71,270.
The Medical Library Association reports the overall average salary for medical librarians was $57,952 in 2005 with a median salary of $53,800. Medical library directors can earn between $47,689 and $175,854 annually.
Salary.com reports that the median salary for a typical medical librarian with an MLS was $46,313 in April 2006. Chief medical librarians with an MLS degree earned a median salary of $54,806 in 2006.
Most medical librarians receive a full benefits package, which may include paid vacation time, holiday pay, compensated sick leave, various insurance plans, and retirement savings programs. Those who work in a college or university library may receive tuition waivers in order to earn advanced degrees in health or information sciences.
Medical librarians must do a considerable amount of sitting and reading to keep informed in order to serve library patrons. They must also spend a lot of time staying up to date with constantly changing technology. Some medical librarians may find the work demanding and stressful when they deal with users who are working under deadline pressure. Medical librarians working in technical services may suffer eyestrain and headaches from working long hours in front of a computer screen. Overall, medical libraries, like other libraries, are quiet, well-lit, pleasant, and comfortable places to work.
Medical Librarian Career Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that employment opportunities for librarians, overall, will grow more slowly than the average through 2014; however, more than two million health-related articles and 24,000 medical journals and related publications are published annually. Individuals trained to catalog and organize this information will be in strong demand. Additionally, due to predicted shortages of librarians in the coming years—the Department of Labor estimates that three in five librarians will reach retirement age in the next decade—job opportunities should be good.
For More Information:
- American Library Association
- American Society for Information Science and Technology
- Medical Library Association