Health librarian competencies (draft)

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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 6 July 2017


See also Canadian consumer health information (CHI) portal 800px-Flag of Canada.svg.png | Dis-information and 'fake news' in a post-truth world | Managing health libraries | 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 provides some talking points for the discussion of key health librarian competencies in professional practice. Health librarian competencies are quite simply rooted in core library traditions and librarianship that date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries (see Top Ten Competencies in Medical Reference). Given the rise of the Internet, however, evidence-based medicine and a range of search tools beyond PubMed, some reference skills are clearly on the wane (or somewhat in decline) more than any point in librarianship's history. Conversely, the demands placed on health librarians for better data management and systematic review searching seem to have created a range of new roles for us, and consequently demand new skills and knowledge. (In 2017, a group of librarians attempted to list librarian competencies for those involved in systematic reviews.) In reference services, simple questions answered through our reference collections can be satisfactorily answered now by our individual user groups across health and medicine through their own fact-finding missions via Google and other web-based search engines. However, some health librarians feel it is still premature to make such pronouncements about the demise of reference services and simple leading users to authoritative sources in an era of fake news. Perhaps our roles in information literacy are more important than ever? Further, health librarians frequently see (and hear) that users feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information on the web, and can often find it challenging to locate the information they need to carry out 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).

  • See also MLA Competencies for Professional Success 2007 and 2017 update. 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 deemed to be a compromise. This is where having an onsite library with a qualified and skilled health librarian is essential. 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.

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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