An interview with Rebecca Davis, Head Librarian, Blaisdell Medical Library, UC Davis Health System.

Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis

At an early stage of her life, Rebecca’s interest in libraries combined with her endless fascination with medical information started shaping her career. In junior high, she remembers, she had an opportunity to spend a day with a public librarian. She was interested in what was happening at the library, and surprised that the librarian did not look like the older, very severe-looking librarian at the library in her neighborhood. This librarian was actually young and cute, and wore a mini-skirt.  From that point on, Rebecca worked in libraries both in high school as well as in college while working on her bachelor’s degree.

From 1972 to 1975 Rebecca lived in South America in Guyana. After about 6 months there, she had the opportunity of becoming the head of the Guyana Medical Sciences Library. The Georgetown Hospital had 900 beds and the closest other library had a smaller collection, and was about 50 miles away. At the age of 22, Rebecca had two people to supervise.  One person was in charge of circulation, and the other did whatever needed to be done in the library that was not circulation, or ordering books and cataloging. There was a library advisory board. She wrote a quarterly newsletter about the library and new library acquisitions. It was so to speak a solo librarian position.  In 1981, she went back to Guyana and worked at the University of Guyana Library for two years as a Science and Technology librarian. Her curiosity and fascination with health and medical information were growing. However, she didn’t have an MLS. In 1983, she decided to go to library school so she could work as a librarian anywhere. She was accepted into the library school at UCLA – but because she had only average grades in college, she was put on probation for the first semester! UCLA was a good choice because she knew she wanted to be a medical librarian.

When asked why she chose medical librarianship, Rebecca responds:

When I did decide to go to library school, it was a shoo-in for me to be a medical librarian. I just love medicine. One of the things that I considered rather than going to library school was becoming a physician assistant.

I don’t think anything is more important than Health and wellbeing. You can talk about Shakespeare, you can talk about the great writers, you can talk about all kinds of things, but if you don’t have your health, then you are not at liberty to enjoy all the finer things of life.  Also I have an abiding interest in medicine. I find it fascinating. I think medical librarians serve an important function in that they are assisting in healthcare.

In the process of doing a literature search with someone, I find out about a medical topic and it is generally something I did not know. I am always just bowled over by all the variations of the human body. All of the ways of providing cures, healing, hands-on hands-off…   So, that is the piece of being a medical librarian that I really love. Being a librarian in a general kind of way, people trust you. It is like being a teacher. It is actually better than being a teacher, because people see you as a neutral person and they are respectful of what you do.  That does not mean that they always know what you do. In an academic environment, I think there is an appreciation for librarians.

Librarians she explains are always casting about what their role should be. Librarians need to see themselves as navigators, advisors, and consultants. It is important to make sure that library users understand the limitations of whatever resources they use. I have yet to meet with anyone who made an appointment for help with a literature search who hadn’t done something on it already. There is no point in saying “oh! you are missing the whole universe I can bring the whole universe of information to you.” It actually makes it easier to use their retrieval as a starting point for teaching.

Librarians should use everything at their disposal to advertise library services. It is essential to publish in newsletters, send notices, and attend grand round sessions. Above all, librarians need to get out of the library. Rebecca recommends going to nurses’ grand rounds or other medical educational events and stand up to say: You know, we can help you with that kind of thing.

New librarians need to get to know the environments they are in. Rebecca recommends that whatever kind of librarian you are, you have to get out of the library. You have to attend talks. You have to try to get on committees. You have to get out of the library because you are the best advertisement for what the library does. A lot of instances, I find that people just don’t think about the library. They are appreciative of the library. But when it actually comes down to it, I have to constantly make sure that the library is remembered, and the skills we can teach students are being remembered and included.

Promoting library services according to Rebecca means going out to meetings, talking to people, watching the calendar for the school of medicine. It is important to find out when the new class is coming in, contact those in charge in a timely manner, express interest in working with students, and start with their information finding competencies in year one. She points out that well-intentioned people will include us with orientation, along with telling students about where to park their bikes, how to get a parking sticker, etc… I don’t go to orientation without the promise of having an hour with the students a couple of weeks later. I try not to do sessions, or book sessions, unless it is going to be meaningful to the students. If they don’t have an assignment that requires them to use library resources, then teaching them something like PubMed is largely a waste of my time and theirs.

Rebecca thinks, the concept of an embedded librarian is wonderful, but it is subject to constraints. It requires the ability to spare and dedicate a member of the staff to a department. The scenario that works best for her team at Blaisdell Medical Library is for librarians to be liaisons to departments. Right now she explains, they have a librarian who is the liaison to the school of nursing. That person is the “go to librarian” for the nursing people. It does not mean that the rest of us cannot help someone from nursing. But this person has experience with the kind of topics nurses and the school of nursing are interested in. It is very different from the kinds of topics residents or medical faculty members are interested in.

Rebecca recommends that once a year librarians ask their users about their needs: That can be just a one-question survey. How can we help you do what you need to do? How can we help you? What can the library do for you? Four years ago in response to a survey, she says: we were able to do some things that actually cost us nothing. I think we should use every encounter with a patron as an opportunity to ask questions. Find out what they are doing, what is their concern. I don’t mean keeping them and grilling them but just being curious.

Solo librarians, she believes, need to think strategically about where they put their time outside of the library. They need to develop connections with decision-making power individuals. They need to develop a support group of champions.  Quoting Rya Ben-Shir* Rebecca stresses the need for intrapreneurship rather than entrepreneurship. It is important to remain in contact with the medical staff office. Contact new comers personally. Send them an email. Welcome them letting them know there is a library, and letting them know there is a librarian. Letting them know about some of the resources and that you would be happy to assist them in whatever ways you provide assistance.

Reflecting back on her career she credits both her time in Guyana and having been an NLM Associate as the two main boosters. There are some assumptions made of an associate. NLM has this yearlong associate award program (now I think it is two years). Anyone coming out of library school or with a couple of years of experience can apply. If chosen you go and work at the National Library of Medicine. While you are there you get exposed to all the workings of the National Library.

NCNMLG, Rebecca proclaims, holds a warm spot in her heart. It has provided me with an opportunity to network and interact with colleagues in this region. It has given me a way to be active professionally which has benefited my career. I have learned things. I have attended CEs. I have gone to joint meetings and learned things there. Our chapter has always been very open to new people. Open to people stepping in to volunteer. We never made it so that if you were new to the chapter you needed to put in your time before you did something of importance. So, when I was asked to take over and step in as president, I agreed without hesitation. Anything that I can do for the group I will do!

*Rya Ben-Shir