Beyond the Circulation Desk: What It’s Like Being a Medical Librarian

Jeffrey Davies |
4 months ago

Many of us readers grow up encountering one specific kind of librarian who works behind the desk at one of our favorite places: the library. Maybe they’re friendly, maybe they have a rough exterior. Whatever the case, we tend to grow up believing that librarians are just people who sit behind said counter, checking books in and out all day. While there might be librarians who do that, there’s also other forms. One is a medical librarian.

According to the Medical Library Association (MLA — not to be confused with the citation style):

“Health sciences librarians are information professionals, librarians, or informaticists who have special knowledge in quality health information resources. They have a direct impact on the quality of patient care, helping physicians, allied health professionals, administrators, students, faculty, and researchers stay abreast of and learn about new developments in their fields.”

And yet, despite all of these crucial responsibilities, the efforts of medical librarians still constantly go overlooked. “Those who become medical librarians are highly interested in helping people,” says Academic Invest. “The information they help find can help medical students become successful physicians, help doctors make informed decisions as to how to treat health conditions, and help families determine how to deal with health concerns they may be facing.”

I had the chance to speak with Eleni Philippopoulos, an information specialist — also known as a medical librarian — for Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. In her view, being a medical librarian is different from working in other types of libraries because working in a hospital means being at the heart of the action: “You get first-hand knowledge of what doctors are working on right now,” she said. “Their research has an urgency to it that I feel is missing from research centres or federal institutions, even though their projects are just as important. I do work closely with university students as well, but being a medical librarian in a university would be more teaching heavy.”

To get where she is today, Philippopoulos majored in history as an undergrad before going on to complete a master’s degree in information studies. It was during her graduate work that she took a few courses on health information, government information, and biomedical research, which would eventually lead her to the conclusion that a career as a medical librarian would be a challenging but fulfilling goal. It helped that, prior to becoming a medical librarian, she’d worked in various administrative roles in a hospital for almost a decade.

“I already knew the system and thought it would be a natural progression in my career,” said Philippopoulos. “Before working in medical libraries, my first job was in a public library, and it was great seeing the direct impact you had on people’s lives.”

“People still have this misconception that all librarians just sit behind a desk, stamp books, and shush you all the time.”

Working in a medical library is more of a behind-the-scenes job, she reports, and the most challenging part of being a medical librarian for her is being overlooked. “We do lots of amazing work, and I feel that medical research couldn’t move forward without our expertise, yet people still have this misconception that all librarians just sit behind a desk, stamp books, and shush you all the time.”

All librarians are required to have an extensive set of skills, anywhere from reading comprehension to complex problem-solving. This skillset only intensifies for medical librarians, according to Philippopoulos:

“Again, people think we’re just pulling books or helping you find articles when there’s a lot of work going on in the back end. We work closely with healthcare professionals and help them publish their research and create new hospital guidelines, we develop complex search strategies to locate the most up-to-date evidence, we teach new students searching techniques and work with patients to help them understand their health conditions and sift through medical jargon.”

There’s a lot that goes into this profession, she says, and in her experience there’s nothing better than being able to show someone how you can help them and them being appreciative. 

When I asked Philippopoulos what parts of her job has enriched her professional outlook as a librarian, she hesitated, perhaps because there are so many ways in which her work and efforts go so vastly underappreciated. Finally, she decided that the most crucial part to being a medical librarian in particular is listening. “It’s such a big part of the job,” she said. “At the end of the day, everyone wants to feel heard, whether you’re helping a nurse find articles on intubation or listening to an elderly patient talk about her struggle with arthritis.”

But I wouldn’t worry too hard about medical librarians like Philippopoulos being able to hold their own and stand up for their hard work. A piece of advice she imparts on aspiring medical librarians is to not let anyone, i.e. doctors, talk down to you or think they’re better than you. “You bring your own set of expertise that is vital to the field. All work has value.” In the immortal words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”