Interview with the Expert: Health Sciences Librarianship

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

November 22, 2022

Dr. Emily Vardell teaches at my alma mater, and I recently had the opportunity to interview her about health sciences librarianship— her area of expertise. She has a great deal of useful information about the state of the field. I hope you enjoy it and learn something new. 

1. Please introduce yourself to our readers. 

I’m Emily Vardell (she/her). I am an Assistant Professor in the School of Library and Information Management at Emporia State University. I received my MLS from Texas Woman’s University while working as an English Language Teaching Assistant in Vienna Austria. After graduating, I was a National Library of Medicine Associate Fellow from 2007-2009. Then I obtained a librarian position at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine – eventually becoming the Director for Reference and Education. I left that position to pursue my PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in their School of Information and Library Science. My dissertation was on health insurance literacy and how people make health insurance decisions. I continue to pursue that line of research in my position now as well as other research projects on information behavior, library education, and other topics. I teach graduate courses on the foundations of library science, reference, and health sciences librarianship.

2. What sparked your interest in health sciences librarianship?

My undergraduate degree is in Biochemistry and German. I knew I wanted to work with science/health in some way, but I didn’t really enjoy working in a lab setting. I wanted to work with people! I was living in Vienna as a Fulbright Scholar and English Language Teaching Assistant when my mom happened to walk by a poster for the National Library of Medicine Associate Fellowship. She took a picture of the poster and said she wondered if that might be the kind of thing I’d be interested in. I enrolled in my MLS program, took all the health-related courses I could, and then applied for the Fellowship. I’m so grateful that I got in because it was an absolutely wonderful way to start my career in health sciences information.

3. What forces are shaping health science information?

As with many information disciplines, misinformation is a huge force. Health sciences librarians are advocates for accurate, reliable health information – including easy-to-read information for the average consumer. Health sciences librarians can combat misinformation in a multitude of ways – from helping to create comprehensible information resources, to underscoring the importance of literacy issues with healthcare providers, to providing direct assistance to community members and connecting them with information that can improve their health.

4. What future trends will impact health science information?

Systematic reviews are very popular in academic medicine. Librarians are well poised to provide assistance with systematic reviews. We know how to conduct a good search! There are a lot of conversations going on right now in the medical library field about systematic review best practices as well as how medical librarians can advocate to be included on an author list. Librarians offer key services to systematic review teams helping them improve their research strategies, and this should be recognized with authorship.

5. How do you see technology impacting health science information?

When it comes to clinical care, point-of-care resources are extremely popular for busy health care professionals. However, not all point-of-care resources are created equal. Some are better about citing evidence to support their recommendations. Librarians can play a role in considering how to develop and maintain resources that meet health care providers’ needs while also connecting them to the latest research to inform evidence-based practice.

6. What tips do you have for librarians who are new to working with health science information?

A huge one is not to be intimated! Most people who start in health sciences librarianship do not have any kind of health background. So much of the domain-specific knowledge and expertise can be learned on the job. Sometimes health sciences librarians have a hard time recruiting graduate students for internships or even new hires to work in health sciences libraries because there’s this misunderstanding that you need a lot of background knowledge. What you need are those core librarian skills. The rest comes over time as you work with patrons and build up domain knowledge. As we like to say, you don’t need to know everything (about medicine), you just have to know where and how to find it!

7. How do you recommend health sciences librarians stay current?

I have been a member of the Medical Library Association (MLA) since 2008 and have served in many service roles within the organization. I think it is a great way to stay current with what is going on in the field and to network and connect with practicing medical librarians. There are lots of opportunities for new librarians, so I would encourage people to join different MLA caucuses of interest and see when they put out calls for volunteers. They/we would love to have you! There are also regional chapters of MLA across the United States, which can also be an easier way to connect professionally. They tend to have local or virtual conferences and provide ways of connecting with medical librarians in your region.

8. Is there anything else you would like to share?

I think health sciences librarianship is such a promising and exciting career path! Health sciences librarians can fill a multitude of roles within their institutions, and you can often sense a direct impact in improving community health through your work. Health sciences librarians are passionate about health equity, and it is empowering to be a part of a profession that is working to reduce health disparities.

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent presenter and interviewer on topics related to libraries and librarianship. Her expertise includes information literacy, educational technology, and library and information science education.  Please read Lauren’s other posts relevant to special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus, used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets.

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