Health librarian competencies (draft)

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A UK clinical librarian aids a physician & nurse on morning rounds
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  • Updated.jpg 25 May 2017


See also Canadian consumer health information (CHI) portal 800px-Flag of Canada.svg.png | Managing health libraries | Ten (10) portals on health librarianship | What health librarians do

"...Competencies are a constantly evolving set of multiple, interconnected behaviours...achieved through participation and enacted in time and space..."

This entry on health librarian competencies is a starting point (in perpetual beta) for the discussion of competencies for health librarians. Health librarian competencies are rooted in the core library traditions dating back to the early 20th century (see Top Ten Competencies in Medical Reference). Given the rise of search engines, Google scholar and Twitter, reference skills seem to be on the wane (or at least somewhat in decline) more than in any point in librarianship's history. Simple questions posed historically at the reference desk and answered through our reference collections are now satisfactorily answered through fact-finding missions in Google and other web-based sources. However, it may be premature to make such a pronouncement.

Health librarians hear frequently that users feel overwhelmed by information, and can't find the information they need to do their work. Authoritative, evidence-based information can be difficult to locate despite the ubiquity of information generally. During periods of information overload, health librarians must therefore revisit their basic competencies of providing medical reference services either on their own or in collaboration with their peers. These basic health librarian competencies are related to the notion of mapping the medical bibliography and having a clear understanding of the structure of medical information (and where it's likely to be found). Some helpful ideas for health librarians who want to help reduce waste in research can be found in this article: EQUATOR. Can librarians contribute to increasing value and reducing waste in medical research? 28 February 2014.

  • See also MLA Competencies for Professional Success 2007. Updated.jpg
  • In 2017, the Task Force to Review MLA’s Competencies for Lifelong Learning and Professional Success completed a two-year project of revising the MLA Competencies for Lifelong Learning and Professional Success. The professional competencies identify essential professional skills and abilities and serve as an important guide to improving performance. MLA has launched the MLA 2017 Competencies Self-Assessment, a free offering that introduces you to the newly revised MLA Competencies for Lifelong Learning and Professional Success.

Medical reference roles & context(s)

Medical librarians provide a range of reference and information services to physicians and other health professionals both in and outside the medical library, on the phone, virtually (using chat, instant messaging tools, social media) and so on. In addition, instructional services "one-on-one", in small or large workshops are part and parcel of delivering competent reference services in medical libraries in the 21st century. By using digital tools, our users can communicate with us more readily than ever, without ever having to come to the library. However, health librarians must consider their print-based competencies and how they compare to and transfer into the new digital environments in which we now work.

Several recent articles in the JMLA and JCHLA/JABSC suggest that health librarians are also expected to be technically knowledgeable. End-users in medicine experience all kinds of technical and authentication issues when they access licensed content, and may not fully understand the differences between "free vs. fee" content. Other technical barriers and their solutions such as proxy servers, firewall workarounds and VPNs are important in the delivery of digital library services as these tools prepare the way for users who need to move across online barriers. Sometimes the simple act of explaining a tool to a faculty member or medical researcher is all that may stand in the way of obtaining information and making good clinical decisions. In some cases, access to the best medical evidence in hospitals is intermittent when using various workarounds. Hospital firewalls can put up formidable barriers, and IT departments may feel it is necessary to block websites and resources if they are deemed to be a compromise to hospital networks. This is where having an onsite library with a qualified and skilled health librarian is essential.

An oath for health librarians?

Physicians take an oath to teach anyone who needs teaching in medicine, including medical students, residents and non-medical students. Teaching is a noble and important part of medicine. Similarly, health librarians should consider taking a similar type of oath. Anyone who needs help in learning something should feel free to ask from a health librarian, and receive it appropriately, and with courtesy. There is nothing degrading or devaluing about that, and it should be promoted in all MLIS programs. Health librarians should be prepared to teach basic information skills to anyone who needs them or who has trouble understanding them; the expression of understanding or relief that show when they finally understand the concept makes our work worthwhile.

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