On Becoming

Abstract vibrant tree with leaves in the colors of the rainbow

At what point can one say, “I am a librarian”?

No, I’m not asking about myself. Instead, after reading Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming, I’ve been thinking about how our lives, including our careers, unfold, and whether or not we ever truly become what we aspire to be.

So, at what point can one say, “I am a librarian”? Is it on entry to a graduate program in library science? When assuming that first professional position? As one grows in skill and sophistication or achieves some recognition for the unique expertise of the profession?

You might argue for any of these, but from where I sit, a librarian is always becoming. Curiosity and intellectual drive lead to acquiring the academic degree, but opportunities, shifting trends, and emerging technologies stimulate continuing education and life-long learning. As Mrs. Obama observed, “Becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim…[it’s] forward motion, a means of evolving.” (p. 419)

So it is with librarians, I think. With each change, librarians are challenged to continue becoming—in new ways—the professionals responsible for selecting, acquiring, and managing important collections. In this sense, becoming calls for recognizing the opportunities and choices available and reconciling them to one’s life goals. This type of becoming might lead to acquiring new skills, abandoning old patterns, or stepping into unfamiliar territory, whether by moving across the country or into a different role.

The National Library of Medicine wants to be a part of that becoming for medical librarians, public librarians responsible for health information in a community, and academic librarians who support researchers, students, and academic clinicians. Through our National Network of Libraries of Medicine, we provide webinars and training courses to help librarians solve practical problems and prepare for a future of data-powered health, and we partner with the Medical Library Association to offer programs on access, digital rights management, and open science—all trends that promise to nudge libraries in new directions and librarians toward expanding roles.

Along the way this Library is becoming, too. As NLM prepares to enter its third century, we are tackling emerging challenges and moving in new directions. Where once hundreds of people researched here in our reading room in Bethesda, now millions of people access our electronic resources daily.  Hundreds of subject matter experts and computer scientists now complement our outstanding library science workforce. And we’re moving beyond library science and computer science to improve everyone’s facility and fluency with data science, so we can be ready for what’s coming.

So, embrace the becoming. Continue to learn, to grow, to evolve. And let’s do it together.

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

8 thoughts on “On Becoming”

  1. Don’t forget school librarians! We have an important responsibility to give our students the foundation of health information literacy! And the NLM supports us in that endeavor!

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    1. Yes, absolutely! Thank you for the reminder, Debra. School librarians are essential partners with us, and NLM is here to support your becoming as well.

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  2. Boy, what a point to make. In my view the nature of being a professional (including librarian) is to take on the continuous pursuit of knowledge and skill in the field. In fact, what else is a professional, other than someone who takes responsibility for that pursuit? It’s why we turn to professionals, whether a CPA for taxes or veterinarian or auto mechanic.

    Some might say librarians are the gatekeepers into the halls of information. I prefer the modification someone said on Twitter: the gate openers. And the guides.

    I’m working on another book about patients who go beyond e-patients – they’re not just empowered and engaged; they extend science and create new knowledge. Some are long-time familiar names like Sharon Terry and Jill Viles, who started working their magic in the 1990s; some are brand new on the scene, like Doug Lindsay. Some have literally invented things, like the OpenAPS people and like Jack Andraka’s test for pancreatic cancer. All of their achievements were, or would have been, made much easier with good guidance to the medical literature.<

    It’s no coincidence that “Doc Tom” Ferguson’s e-Patient White Paper starts with the story in 1994 (just as browsers were coming online) of Edwin Murphy, who got busted by hospital security for impersonating his doctor. Why did he do that? Because he wanted to see the only paper that had been published about the surgery he was about to get – and in that era (a quarter century ago) he wasn’t allowed to.

    My view is that medlibs are the gate-openers to a whole new emerging era in which motivated people with medical problems, with or without scientific training, extend the frontiers of healthcare achieving its potential. What a great reason to be alive.

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  3. I’m going to answer your question literally: Once upon a time, shortly after I got my library degree, I was at a restaurant with a bunch of librarians who were telling funny cataloging stories. And I was laughing. I took a mental step back to think “Oh dear. What have I become?” Yes, I had become… a librarian.

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    1. > funny catloging stories

      OMG! LOL! What the heck- you MUST share a couple!

      Funny CATALOGING stories?? Now THAT’s a library nerd, in the best sense!

      I’m gonna run off to Twitter and see what #medlibs I can dig up to participate in this … 🙂

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  4. It was over 25 years ago, and alas, I don’t remember any that the others told. I may have contributed one (true story!) about a librarian in my university’s Library Science Library calling over to the bindery* asking about the journal RQ. The person in the bindery replied “RQ? No, all of the materials in your library begin with Z.”

    *Remember bound journals? I told you this was a long time ago.

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  5. I’ve enjoyed reading these comments—particularly the recognition that laughter in response to an inside joke is perhaps the surest indication that one has reached a key milestone “on becoming…”

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