Solo Librarians as Information Servers

cartoon of a juggling man riding a unicycle inside a library

Guest post by Louise McLaughlin, MSLS, Information Specialist at Woman’s Hospital in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

As information flows from the data collection pipeline to research, curation, and publication, hospital librarians, especially those who practice closely with health care providers, become the human face of information servers. And like those data processing units that serve numerous users, these librarians, many of whom work alone as solo librarians, must be prepared to fill requests from all quarters.

Consider, for example, the following vignettes:

The Chief Operating Officer is launching the next phase of a project to reduce perinatal mortality and preterm births. The librarian continually provides the physicians, nurses, and social workers on the project committee with research articles on emerging causes, new treatments, and community-health approaches to improving outcomes.

A pre-op nurse talks with a colleague about a practice difference they have in monitoring a patient. She wants to know what the evidence says.

A nurse educator asks for help proofreading an article about a successful quality improvement project and confirming the proper citation format for the references.

A physician teaching medical students in Mongolia about the latest updates in women’s health asks, “Can you gather research articles that would address their population on this list of topics?”

The marketing department is updating the hospital’s website. They want to know where they can find consumer-friendly health care definitions.

Sometimes, that can all happen in one day!

But answering questions is not all we do.

A 2016 survey of solo librarians garnered responses from 383 professionals who reported on job duties. Using a pick list, respondents identified an average of nine different job duties for which they were responsible, from a high of 17 to a low of five. (To the best of the authors’ knowledge, no data exists regarding the total number of solo librarians in health care, so the survey results are limited.)

Judging by their selections, a job description that fairly represents a solo librarian’s qualifications might include strong literature search skills across multiple databases, managing electronic resources, experience instructing clinicians, fluency with medical terminology, and advanced budget skills. Working with researchers and rounding with clinical staff may also be required, as might serving on hospital committees, including the Institutional Review Board. Strong outreach practices are encouraged.

Even with such a diverse skill set, many of these librarians lack job security. While many solos are regarded as valuable members of their health care teams, they also know their jobs may not survive the next hospital merger or budget crisis. In fact, listserv news of hospital library closures, anticipated or unexpected, can turn that fear into an ever-present companion.

Yet being resilient may be a solo librarian’s strongest quality. We always have an eye toward future trends, both in our hospitals and in the information arena. Listen to our conversations, and you will hear us talking about ways to use data to demonstrate to our administrators our daily contributions to patient safety, improved outcomes, case management, and the hospital’s overall return on investment.

And though we call ourselves “solo librarians”—and might be managing a hospital’s library services alone or with a skeleton staff of part-timers or volunteers—we know we do not work in isolation.

Our colleagues in academia and at the National Network of Libraries of Medicine nourish us with webinars about the basics of electronic medical record data, innovative instructional methods, consumer health resources, and best uses for a variety of NLM databases. Many of them are our professional best friends, supporting us when we need clarity on best practices in running our library or offering support with a perplexing situation.

We also rely upon the National Library of Medicine, both for its resources and its vision. We view NLM’s 10-Year Strategic Plan as a roadmap to where we are headed. Solo librarians are well-prepared to support Goals 2 and 3 (PDF) of the plan, whether with skills we already have or others we need to develop. Supporting biomedical and health information access and dissemination is already part of our lives; learning to identify and appreciate the capabilities of new digital products is on our must-do list. With training and guidance, we can be the link that facilitates data science proficiency within our institutions and healthy living within our communities.

But like information servers, solo librarians are most valuable when we are kept updated, valued, and used. For this, we count on those higher up the knowledge-creation ladder to share their wisdom with us, value our expertise in local health dynamics, and remind others to use us as resource partners.

casual headshot of Louise McLaughlinLouise McLaughlin, MSLS, stepped into the role of Information Specialist at Woman’s Hospital in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when her predecessor retired, and her job as assistant librarian was eliminated. She has reached out to friends in similar settings and established a monthly Solo Chat and worked as co-convener of the Medical Library Association’s Solo Special Interest Group. Louise has authored or co-authored several articles on solo librarianship for the Journal of Hospital Librarianship, the National Network, and other association publications.

One thought on “Solo Librarians as Information Servers”

  1. Thank you for shining a spotlight on this issue. I have been concerned (as have many others) regarding the lack of visibility for solo librarians (and hospital librarians–most often these are overlapping groups). The Strategic Plan is ambitious and broad (not a criticism); as always, the devil is in the details. It is my hope (and I believe it is shared by all involved in medical librarianship) that all librarians concerned with any aspect of healthcare continue to work together toward the greater good of medicine and our part in it. Whether the solo librarian, the hospital librarian, or the solo hospital librarian will be a part of that quest remains to be seen. Market forces and other factors are not in our favor; therefore advocacy both by the soloists themselves and by professional organizations such as MLA and NLM are crucial today.

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