Professional Identity Reshaped: NAHSL is Well-Represented at MLA 2014

May 23, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Posted in Professional Development | Leave a comment
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Sketchnotes from Plenary Session 4, Sally Gore

Sketchnotes from Plenary Session 4, Sally Gore

When I first saw the stage for the 4th Plenary Session of MLA arranged with couches and comfy chairs I thought, “Uh oh, talking about our evolving professional identity requires a therapist’s office.” Ah, but it turned out more like an afternoon talk show, with Elaine Martin, Director of the Lamar Soutter Library, University of Massachusetts Medical School, serving as the host. The panel of colleagues were there to lead a discussion of this topic that has been the focus of many a blog post, article, list serv discussion, and water cooler talk in hospital and/or academic medical libraries over the past few years. The panel assembled included NAHSL’s own, Margo Coletti, Director of Knowledge Services, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston; Neil Rambo, Director, NYU Health Sciences Libraries, New York University Medical School in NYC; and Jackie Wirz, Biomedical Research Specialist at the Oregon Health & Science University Library, Portland, OR.

Those of us familiar with the medical libraries in New England are aware of the changes that Margo initiated at the BIDMC library, most specifically placing an emphasis on their role in knowledge management (KM) services. Margo has been a leader in our profession when it comes to raising awareness of, teaching, and promoting KM for hospital libraries in the region. You can find many of her presentations and papers in the NN/LM NER collection of eScholarship@UMMS. Margo used the 3-legged stool (a metaphor that I saw several times during the conference) to describe KM, the legs being using technology to connect people to knowledge assets. The skill most needed to succeed in this area? According to Margo, it’s organization. Librarians (or knowledge managers) are supposedly good at this, thus we surely can find success being identified this way.

Neil Rambo and his staff at the NYU Medical Library had no choice in reshaping their identity. Hurricane Sandy forced it upon them. Flood waters destroyed their library, along with lots of other real estate along the river in Manhattan. Left without a physical library (it still remains closed while renovations continue), the librarians found themselves spread around campus, housed wherever they could find space. Likewise, the physical collection (what was salvaged) was displaced, moved to other areas while the library is being rebuilt. Overnight, Rambo (great name for facing disaster, eh?) was faced with thinking about how the library and librarians would function without any space, as well as what kind of space they wanted for the future. In many ways, he said, it was liberating. Sometimes it takes a crisis for us to act. One of the most interesting plans for the new library, I thought, was that it would not house the librarians. The space is being designed with the needs of the students in mind, i.e. it will feature space for them, not so much the staff. We’ve heard a lot of other examples of librarians getting out of the library, but this seemed a little more drastic to me. They are out and they’re not coming back. Rambo believes that this takes the biggest resource of the library, the librarians, to the users. I look forward to watching the progress and one day visiting the new library at NYU.

Jackie Wirz is one of those rare PhD scientists who’ve found a home in a library, providing a lot of specialized, bioinformatics-type services to the research community at OHSU. Maybe it’s because of my own work and thus the sections and programs that I attended at MLA, as well as the trends that I keep up with, that I’m starting to wonder if maybe it’s time for the librarians to leave the library and let the bioinformatics people use it as their home. There’s such a push to bring these services to medical research libraries, while at the same time a push to get librarians out into research teams, it makes some sense to me that we just trade places. I can see that working.

After each speaker had a chance to share his/her story and perspective, the floor was open for discussion. I know that some on the panel feared there wouldn’t be any, but that wasn’t the case at all as people lined up at the microphones and the back-channel discussion on Twitter went on and on. This reshaping of our identity is not without many, many questions and I most appreciated that the panel members and moderator didn’t try to sound a single message as their answer. One example, I asked a question that I think about an awful lot (if you read my blog, A Librarian by Any Other Name, you know this); Do librarians need a library any more? When so much of our time is spent outside of the library and much of our salary is being paid by others besides the library, who are we really working for? Who are we answering to? Who are we most accountable to? How do we determine our priorities?

The answers were mixed. Elaine offered that she feels the library needs to remain the academic home for librarians. She mentioned that we need a place where we can continue to be connected and grow in regards to our professional identity. (Personally, I wholeheartedly agree with this, but also wonder about the differences between an academic and an administrative home. How do we get to sorting all of that out?) Neil offered a “simple” no to my first question. No, some librarians don’t need to be connected to the library anymore. Depending upon the work you do, being tethered to the library holds you back. Jackie shared that she struggles with the same questions, with half of her salary coming from the library and half from her university’s research office. It’s a balancing act. Margo said that my question struck a nerve with her and she highlighted the very real political “turf battle” that libraries face within institutions. To her, having librarians not associated with the library brings with it a lot of risk for losing our turf.

Many others asked questions, raised great points, and prompted more discussion. There were no concrete answers. How could there be? Our profession is undergoing changes that can produce both excitement and anxiety. This tension was evident throughout the Annual Meeting’s programs and presentations. It’s the world we’re working in and folks felt really free – perhaps compelled – to share all of the good and the bad and the unknown that’s happening. I loved it!

So thanks to NAHSL’s Professional Development Committee for the scholarship to help off-set some of my expenses and allow me to attend the meeting. I hope many others were able to do the same, either virtually or in-person, and that you found it to be a great few days in your professional lives.

[by Sally Gore, Lamar Soutter Library, University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Immediate Past-President of NAHSL]

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