She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not

The Professional Retention and Recruitment Committee of the Medical Library Association (my professional association) posted on MLA’s “Linked In” site the questions: Do you think you make a difference at your organization? Do you still feel valuable as a librarian? I wrote a response there, but wanted to put it here on my blog, too. As I state, it’s a bigger question; one that can be directed to a lot of other professions and institutions than librarians and libraries.

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This is an awfully timely discussion as I just went to a workshop on Monday on embedded, personal and liaison librarians. The audience consisted of librarians from many types and sizes of institutions; state and private colleges, junior colleges, companies, medical schools. It was repeated by practically every soul there (perhaps indicative of the theme of the program) that neither students nor faculty really know what the library and librarians can do for them. Working in an academic health sciences library, I can include clinicians and staff of the hospital to that list, too. It was hardly a new cry, “Nobody knows our value!” but it got me to thinking – and especially, questioning – what’s behind this phenomenon.

It covers the gamut, from young students straight out of high school to those working on a PhD. It applies to all faculty, whether they finished their degree and began teaching 3 years ago or 30. It crosses every discipline, from medicine to history. Faculty do not refer their students to the library (read, they don’t know what we can do) and students don’t come to the library (read, they don’t know what we can do).

So… I started to think about this in a historical context. When the heck did the shift happen? When did people stop knowing what’s available through their library? If you have faculty who don’t know this, 30 years into their profession, have they always not known? Have they never taught their students the value of the library? If that’s the case, how have we gotten on this long? If they did once teach them the value of the library, when did they stop? And why? When you think that we’ve been promoting information literacy in schools (K-12 + college) since the 70s, as that term, and library instruction, as that term, since the late 1800s, when did it get lost? OR what have we been doing to miss the mark in this charge we’ve been given (I’m willing to take some of the credit/blame as a profession)?

Today’s students, doctors, nurses, patients, we all say, do a lousy job at effectively finding and accessing the best quality information. They do not know how to do this. Why not? If it is our mission, as a profession, to teach them how, where and why have we failed?

These are the questions that I’ve been asking myself since Monday. Truthfully, before Monday, but they’ve been at the forefront of my thinking and it’s interesting to see the discussion here, too. Maybe I’m not the only one thinking it.

SO… I did a very quick look through the literature for the history of academic libraries and found a nice review of the literature published in “Library Philosophy and Practice” in 2005. I highlighted a bunch of interesting thoughts on my copy. I had a career before libraries that was based on “big thinking” like this – the meaning of life and such – so this type of questioning is always appealing. But digression aside, here are a few pieces that I think are most relevant to the topic and discussion and questions:

  • “Their (academic libraries, though I think we can include medical libraries, too) history is one of evolution and change that parallels the history of their parent institutions.”
  • There exists “a historic desire by librarians to be accepted equally by faculty” (insert clinicians, med students, etc.), but “the acceptance of librarians by the community has not improved very much” over time.
  • And finally, “libraries tend to reflect rather than create intellectual trends.”

No doubt, there are people who have and always will value libraries and librarians. They love us and the work we do, but more and more, I’m becoming convinced that this is much more a reflection of those individuals rather than the library and/or librarians. These people tend to be people who are willing to ask for help. They are often both intelligent and creative. They value reading (yes, reading – it will ALWAYS be tied to the idea of libraries and librarians) and they like asking questions. They are, in a sense, our people. They like us and we like them. They ARE us and we are them. But sadly (or perhaps, it’s a good thing in the larger picture of the universe) they (we) are the minority.

I think there is something to be said for and recognized in the quotes from this historical perspective (meaning, the above-referenced article). Our own history does reflect our parent institutions. It reflects our society. Education, learning, health care, medical research – these are all things that have ebbed and flowed in their importance throughout history. If you think about it, we may give a lot of lip service to these things as a society, but are they truly the heart of what we’re about in medical education and health care? I wonder. There’s a bottom line – in education, in research, and in health care – and I think we all know what that bottom line is. It is clearly reflected in many of the decisions that are made today, and ultimately the value that we place upon things in our society.

I’ve no idea on how to counter this in a large sense. Like others, the personal thanks that I regularly receive from a portion of students and researchers do make me feel better about the work I do. They make me feel like I make some small difference. But like others in this string of comments, too, I wish they happened more and reflected more a different set of values displayed by our institutions, hospitals and society at large. Something other than the literal bottom line.

 

[Weiner, S.G. (2005) The History of Academic Libraries in the United States: A Review of the Literature. Library Philosophy and Practice 7(2). Available online.]

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