Medical Librarians


Exploring this Job

There are several ways you can explore the field of librarianship and medical librarianship in particular. As a student, you probably use the library all the time. Make the most of your public and school library when working on papers and other projects.

To explore the work of librarians, ask around at local libraries or your school library if they have need for an assistant or part-time worker. If they are unable to pay, offer your time for free. Experience with checking materials in and out at the circulation desk, shelving returned books, or typing title, subject, and author information on cards or in computer databases will be useful in the future. In college, you might be able to work as a technical or clerical assistant in one of your school's academic libraries.

Contact the Medical Library Association (MLA), the American Library Association (ALA), and other professional library organizations to inquire about membership options. Most groups offer excellent mentoring opportunities as well. Finally, if you have an e-mail account, sign up for one or more of the listservs offered by these groups. A listserv is an e-mail list of professionals throughout the world who consult each other on special topics.

Visit the Career Center on MLA’s Web site, https://www.mlanet.org/p/cm/ld/fid=352, for a wealth of other information about medical library education and careers.

The Job

Much of a medical librarian's job is similar to the work of a traditional librarian; he or she organizes, shelves, and helps people retrieve books, periodicals, and other sources. Medical librarians may also help people check out materials, stamp due dates, collect fines for past-due items, look for misshelved items or reshelve items, and work with electronic media on CD-ROMs, DVDs, databases, or on the Internet.

Because of the technical and even sensitive nature of the material, some medical libraries are not open to the public. Medical libraries in hospitals or clinics are typically used only by doctors and other medical staff who are retrieving information such as archived patient medical files. Medical school libraries are open solely for medical students and staff retrieving research conducted and/or written at the institution and other locations. Other medical libraries are open to the public, but have limited-access materials that are monitored by reference librarians. These workers must make sure only authorized individuals check out the materials and that items are properly signed out and recorded.

Some medical librarians do not deal with the public at all, instead working on the more technical tasks of ordering, cataloging, and classifying materials. These librarians select and order all books, periodicals, audiovisual materials, and other items for the library, evaluating newly published materials as well as seeking out older ones. In addition to traditional books, and magazines, modern medical libraries also contain electronic records, DVDs, films, videos, slides, maps, and photographs. The selection and purchase of these is also the responsibility of the head medical librarian. These higher positions, therefore, have considerable influence over the quality and extent of a library collection.

Similar to other libraries, medical librarians must catalog all new additions by title, author, and subject in either card or computerized catalog files. Labels, card pockets, and barcodes must be placed on the items, and they must then be properly shelved. Books and other materials must be kept in good condition and, when necessary, repaired or replaced. In addition to ordering materials, medical librarians must also purchase, maintain, and evaluate the circulation system. Considerable technical knowledge of computer systems may be necessary in deciding upon the extent and scope of the proper circulation for the library.

Medical acquisitions librarians choose and buy books and other health-related media for the library. They must read product catalogs and reviews of new materials as part of the acquisitions decision process. They do not work with the public, but deal with publishers and wholesalers of new books, booksellers of out-of-print books, and distributors of audiovisual materials. When the ordered materials arrive, medical cataloging librarians, with the aid of medical classifiers, classify the items by medical field, assign classification numbers, and prepare cards or computer records to help users locate the materials. Since many libraries have computerized the acquisitions and cataloging functions, it is now possible for the user to retrieve materials faster. Most automated libraries have phased out bulky card catalogs and provide users with small computer terminals instead.

Medical bibliographers usually work in research libraries, compiling lists of books, periodicals, articles, and audiovisual materials on selected topics in the health field. They also recommend the purchase of new materials.