Author: Andrea Parent

The 21st Century Medical Librarian: More Vital than Ever

Welcome to NEJM LibraryHub, a new resource from NEJM Group for medical librarians.

Medical libraries and the role of medical librarians are changing and evolving along with medicine. Medical publishing is changing, too. Roles are being transformed — and even threatened — by technology. At the same time, the 21st century avalanche of biomedical information makes medical librarians and their institutions more important than ever.

NEJM LibraryHub will showcase innovative work and leadership of medical librarians, focus on the crucial role librarians play at the nexus of medical libraries and publishing, and address topics of keen mutual interest. Medical publishers and medical librarians share much common ground: we communicate the importance of rigor and quality in biomedical information, we must address evolving expectations of users, and we strive to keep ahead of the changes that technology is bringing to scholarly communication.

Aided by our NEJM Library Advisory Board of medical library leaders, we are acutely aware of today’s needs from the librarian’s point of view, and we are aware of your interest in how medical publishers and NEJM Group are responding. The complexity of addressing information needs in a rapidly changing world of biomedical information is our shared challenge. In this post, we introduce members of our Library Board and some of the topics they and others will address on NEJM LibraryHub.

Meeting changing needs and expectations for physician education and information

Changes in scholarly communication — including the role of journals, economic models of publishing, and open science — are among the biggest challenges to libraries, says Chris Shaffer, university librarian at Oregon Health & Science University. Data science, data sharing, reproducibility, and personalized medicine all are new areas that need attention.

At the same time, new technologies that change the landscape for medical education and research are constantly emerging. “Ongoing themes are meeting the needs of faculty and students wherever they may be and mastering digital learning,” says Gabe Rios, library director of the Ruth Lilly Medical Library at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Nicole Dettmar, curriculum design librarian at the University of Washington Health Sciences Library in Seattle, adds, “We’re seeing increased use of course management systems in support of in-person active learning sessions in medical education, and librarians need to have a strongly engaged presence in both settings to support effective instruction.”

Libraries are struggling to balance the information user’s desire to have everything in both digital and print format with what budgets realistically will allow, says Susan Fowler, library director at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work and Public Health. “The paradigm shift in information access has caused everyone to think of information differently and has changed expectations in how information can be accessed and what kind of information is available. Those changed expectations are the crux of the challenge.”

In hospitals, librarians are faced with centralizing their systems in response to mergers and consolidation while continuing to meet the needs of medical staff and patients. “Changing the way library services are delivered across multiple institutions brings up challenges around funding and reporting models, licensing, and the tech delivery of services and resources,” says Heather Martin, director of system library services for Providence Health & Services — Alaska, Oregon, and Southern California. Other challenges include integrating EHR systems and addressing the patient’s role in driving changes for the library and the user community, adds Eve Melton, regional director of library services for Kaiser Permanente Northern California.

Data management, data sharing, and other new frontiers

Technologies that have opened up data sharing and research data management are creating new responsibilities and opportunities for medical librarians.

“Our biggest challenge is developing data management services that support our researchers while trying to stay up-to-date with the changes to federal and private funding policies that encourage and even mandate data-sharing,” says Donna Gibson, director of library services for the Nathan Cummings Library at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Medical librarians also find themselves in new partnerships with researchers to create systematic reviews. “Being all inclusive requires advanced searching skills and a deep knowledge of all the information resources available. This is where librarians are particularly useful,” Fowler says. Andrea Twiss-Brooks, director of research and teaching support at the University of Chicago Library, adds that librarians are increasingly considered full members of the systematic review team and often listed as co-authors in resulting publications.

To address the new frontiers of data, library staffs and relationships are evolving. “We are bringing in new types of people to work in libraries and partnering more with campus constituencies, especially people receiving Clinical and Translational Science Awards at academic medical centers and informatics units in clinical settings,” says Shaffer. “We’re developing new services, including research data management education and data depositories.”

“The challenge includes the changing skill sets required to do the job,” Shaffer adds. “There is a need for more domain expertise and new types of workers, particularly for more computer scientists and perhaps fewer traditionally trained librarians.”

Communicating the value of the 21st century medical librarian

Despite changes in scholarly communication, medical librarians continue to offer vital and enduring services, notably training and expertise in finding, evaluating, using, and publishing research information, says Shaffer.

Yet librarians’ greatest current challenge may be proving their value to their institutions, especially as hospitals and medical schools are pressed into being metric-driven, bottom-line–oriented enterprises, notes Jane Blumenthal, associate university librarian and director of the Taubman Health Sciences Library at the University of Michigan.

“Demonstrating value (and even fighting for existence) is particularly challenging for libraries within a hospital or health system,” says Martin. “As hospitals and health care systems are facing economic challenges, non–revenue-generating departments — like libraries — are often on the chopping block.”

To show their ongoing value, librarians must meet the challenge of “developing and enhancing our skill sets to support new services (e.g., data management, systematic reviews, and the various ways users access information from mobile to desktop),” notes Gibson. “Training people to identify and use the right tools to find information will be important, even if algorithms one day become so sophisticated that training folks how to develop a search string is no longer necessary. Teaching information literacy is only becoming more important as more and more information is available.”

“The real talent of librarians is our ability to remain flexible in an ever-changing environment,” Fowler notes. “That hasn’t changed with the 21st century.”

Resources from NEJM LibraryHub and NEJM Group

To help you in these many roles, NEJM LibraryHub will share the experiences and expertise of your colleagues. And we will offer resources to help you and your constituents take full advantage of NEJM Group offerings. On NEJM LibraryHub, you will find these features:

  • Tip of the Month” is a short, shareable tip about NEJM Group resources — for example, this month’s tip is about the engaging NEJM Knowledge+ Question of the Week.
  • Interviews with NEJM Group leaders in the “Featured Article” explore issues in medical publishing, education, and lifelong learning — and how NEJM Group is answering them. We start this month with Dr. Edward Campion, M.D., executive editor of NEJM.
  • Interviews with a “Featured Librarian” share the insight, innovations, and experience of your colleagues on the NEJM Library Advisory Board and other medical library leaders. Check in next month to learn from Jane Blumenthal about how the University of Michigan transformed its health sciences library. She explains how you, too, can make your voice heard by academic and clinical partners to create spaces that benefit everyone.

At NEJM Group, we’re in the knowledge business with you. We look forward to continuing to advance our shared mission of supporting knowledge, research, and medical care.

What topic would you like to see addressed on NEJM LibraryHub? Advance the conversation by sending your ideas to