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Whooo Says

picture of owl

Dear Whooo,

I’ve been a librarian in a hospital system for several years now. At this point in my career I am anxious to move up in an organization and take on some new responsibilities. I know that the demographics of the librarian population are largely centered in the over 50 group, so it makes sense that with retirements there will be room to move up. How can I best prepare to move up in the organization and make the most of my career?


Visioning the Future

Dear Visioning,

Thanks for writing. You bring up an issue that I think must be on the minds of many of your colleagues. I’m glad that you are looking toward your future and have made the decision about which direction you would like to take.

You are correct about the age demographic among librarians. According to the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO, in 2014, 42% of librarians were over the age of 55,1 and according to Liaison International (and approved by the Medical Library Association) over 50% of medical librarians are expected to retire in the next 10 years.2

There are many ways you can explore to prepare for your future, Visioning. Some of the things you might consider are talking with your supervisor and asking for mentoring to prepare you for the future; taking continuing education classes focused on increasing your management skills; serving on committees within your organization to provide more immediate library services while learning more about other departments and personnel within your hospital; or conduct an assessment of an operation or opportunity within the library and develop or revise a needed program or service. Any of these suggestions will give you additional knowledge and experience.

However, I’d like to take a look at another option which may be overlooked. Libraries and information sciences are currently in a huge transformation. The move to a predominance of electronic resources, resources that bypass the library and sell directly to the user, the open access movement, decreasing space, the emergence of precision medicine and large data sets, the electronic health record and many other things have made for a turbulent environment. It is easy to wring your hands, and decide that the future of librarians is changing permanently.

At this point, I’d like you to stop and consider what the function of a librarian is. Historically we have been charged with organizing collections of information and helping our users locate the specific pieces information they need. If we take a deep breath and look at the emerging trends in our world, I think you will agree that our function is, and will continue to be, necessary. The format of the information and the environment in which we operate may change, but our function remains constant.

So, what is this other option I mention? I suggest we should look carefully at the skills and expertise of the current leaders in today’s library environment. All of these people have survived and risen to leadership in their own turbulent environments. Depending on their circumstances, they have all dealt with difficult employees, shrinking budgets, messy political environments, poor leadership, and most other problems you can imagine. Try to observe and learn from these leaders. Each one has something to teach all of us. It may be how to negotiate successfully for space, employees, or position; how to build a sense of team; how to evaluate employees and assign them to projects that match well with the employee’s skill and development; or how to develop the skills and capacity of those they supervise to improve the operations of the library. All of these things, and many others, are necessary for a good leader. None of us are born with the knowledge and skill to handle these things. We must learn them, and how better than to seek the wisdom of those who have gone before us. As Marcia Fudge, Congresswoman from Ohio states, “There is wisdom that comes from experience, and I am not going to stop learning from wise counsel.”3

The other opportunity to learn from the senior leadership of our profession is to pick a current issue, join the community engaged with that issue and learn from the senior leaders there. There are many examples to follow. The following is a short list. I’m sure you can find many others by just looking at the health sciences library landscape.

  • Deborah Ward at the University of Missouri, in collaboration with family physicians and Susan Meadows (pioneer in expert searching), opened opportunities for librarians and increased the visibility of the profession by working to develop the FPIN Project. She has also worked with Susan Centner (below) to create the Missouri Digital Library.
  • Jean Shipman at the University of Utah has worked to narrow the gap between the publishing community and the open-access movement. She has also contributed to the inclusion of health sciences librarians in the health literacy movement.
  • Jim Bothmer organized a coalition bringing Omaha hospital librarians into Creighton University’s organizational structure during a merger when their positions were threatened with elimination.
  • Susan Centner, Director of the Missouri Digital Library has worked for several years with Deborah Ward (above) to establish and lead the Missouri Digital Library which provides services to health care providers at small and rural hospitals throughout Missouri.
  • Brenda Pfannenstiel at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri has enlarged her library services and staff in a time of shrinking budgets and closing libraries.

As you can see, all of these leaders have made very different and significant contributions to the health sciences library profession. Each of them has something to teach us about recognizing and seizing opportunities in our landscape.

I hope this has been helpful to you, Visioning. There is much to learn as we all move through our professional lives, and I think it would be short-sighted to overlook the contributions and skills of our current leaders. Best wishes in your search for professional development and increased responsibilities.




  1. US. Census Bureau, DataFerrett, American Community Survey, Public Use Microdata Sample 2014.
  2. https://explorehealthcareers.org/career/arts-and-humanities-in-health/medical-librarian/ Accessed March 16, 2017.
  3. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/marcia_fudge.html Accessed March 31, 2017.

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