Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What is the role of the Medical Library Association during a time of crisis?

I have read and responded to recent posts on Medlib-L feeling the desperation and anger expressed by some librarians as their libraries close, as they talk about re-educating, wondering where the magic key might be. I read it and wonder whether the answer is an acceptance of changed/changing times. 

Will we go the way of the 8-track? How much of our response is due to fear of change – and can we even know if this is so?  

Some feel compelled to persuade administrators that without our expertise, health care quality is a deteriorated thing, based upon ignorant, sloppy searches (if searches are done rather than just flat-out retrieval, a la UpToDate). While efforts are ongoing to establish value, is it too little, too late, too unpersuasive? If we had the Gettysburg address of persuasiveness –unalterably and inarguably persuasive, would this reverse the tide?

Some feel the role of associations (in this case, MLA) is to help, even to lead a fight against loss, while others are embittered over what they see as past advocacy failures by the same associations to support the needs of non-academic practitioners. It is not a new perception. Nor is it completely without merit. 

And yet: The MLA Hospital Library Section’s Vital Pathways survey, conducted as the result of an intiative of then-MLA President M.J. Tooey, captured data not elsewhere assembled (Tooey, 2010).

The MLA Education and Research Sections rewrote standards to provide guidelines for change in order to empower practitioners, pointing toward more rigor in research in an environment where best evidence is highly regarded.

The Research Policy statement expressly reinforces its “commitment to assure the vital presence and continued growth of both individuals and the profession of information research” (MLA Research Policy Executive Summary). 

Meanwhile, the Education Policy Statement could not be more clear in its call for action:

“In light of the rate of environmental change, the specific knowledge and skills required of health sciences librarians, and the broad scope of the continuum of learning, it is clear that all who have a stake in the success of the profession need to take action” (MLA Education Policy Statement: Recommendations for Action).

I post this to refute the idea that MLA, as an entity, has not supported library practitioners. But I would also like to see the kind of discussion that is happening on the Medlib-L list take a broader form. This is time for leadership in exploring, and there is a real need for facilitation of peer support networking. I have seen how often hospital librarians use the listserv for many functions, including research, news, job postings, and importantly, to create and sustain a vitally important network of peers. For some, there are no geographically close peers; librarians are truly alone. Libraries close with a whimper, and they are mourned. There is anger, but little sense of direction. There is loss but where is healing?

Maybe it is in our involvement with our own association in ways that we have not been involved before, due to the perception that MLA is not representing our interests. 

Hospital librarians still constitute around 30% of MLA members, including those active in the Hospital Library Section. First, I believe that MLA should consider free or low-fee membership to librarians who have lost their jobs, or whose jobs are otherwise affected. Secondly, MLA/HLS might consider funding a research study hard on the heels of the Vital Pathways survey

Let us begin to understand the work environment of medical librarians in ways we do not, now. With that understanding, let us support the retooling of the profession, set the agenda for a discourse on change, investigate educational funding options for those who are deeply affected. 

If there is fear and loss, let us recognize it and respond to our colleagues.  If there is to be change, let us find the path together.

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