An Interview with Linda Walton, MLS
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Immediate Past President, Medical Library Association
Associate University Librarian
The University of Iowa Libraries

Doody: Your career as a librarian did not start in a medical library. What pathway did you take to get into medical librarianship?

Walton: I was always interested in libraries with a specific focus rather than a general collection. While living in Rhode Island, I got the opportunity to manage a psychiatry library located in a private psychiatric hospital. I had a wonderful boss who was the CEO of the hospital and he encouraged me to try new, innovative approaches for serving patrons, like a photocopier in the library and a single CD-ROM workstation for searching Medline. Hard to believe! I also worked with a wonderful group of health sciences librarians and healthcare professionals in Rhode Island and New England, which endeared me to the profession.

Doody: Your career as a medical librarian has spanned one of the most turbulent eras in librarianship. What are your reflections on that turbulence?

Walton: Librarianship has certainly changed since I began in the 1980s. The most exciting thing about all of the changes is that our profession has survived. Librarians figured out how to adapt and continue to make ourselves relevant. The first big change was the online catalog. While we were all sorry to see the personalized notes on the endless catalog cards, I don’t think anyone missed managing those cards! The Internet was another huge change for libraries, as we now have competition for finding answers to questions and many of us miss the sleuthing and the hunt for the answer. At the same time, however, we have figured out how to make the Internet work for us, and while our approach to research and reference may be using different tools, there are still patrons who appreciate our ability to search the Internet and find the answer to their questions very quickly. I think technology has really opened the door for us on many levels, including instruction, recognizing the importance of cataloging (metadata), and the ability to use library resources remotely.

Doody: Your Presidency of MLA came at a time when the long-time Executive Director, Carla Funk, elected to retire after more than 20 years at the helm. What were the Board’s most important criteria in its search for a new Executive Director?

Walton: The board was looking for a change agent. We wanted someone who understood managing an association with a vision. All professional associations are going through changes as the boomers retire, budgets shrink, and technology changes how we interact. We wanted someone who could look at all of that and move us in a direction that would keep the association relevant to our members.

Doody: The Presidential Blog, Full Speed Ahead, took on a new look and feel during your Presidency. What are the major themes you, the Board and the staff are advancing through the blog?

Walton: The previous Presidential Blog tended to focus on the president and her/his activities. Full Speed Ahead is designed to be more interactive involving all members of the Board, Headquarters and the membership. Members really seem to enjoy the new blog, and we have had very positive feedback.

Doody: It seems as though the trend for the last 10 – 15 years has seen a decrease in institutions’ library footprint and staff. Is that a fair assessment? What is your prediction of what the future looks like for the institutional library’s footprint and staffing?

Walton: I would agree that many health sciences libraries, regardless of location — hospital, special, or academic — have had their footprint reduced. Libraries have always been built to house collections and as our print collections continue to shrink we don’t have the need for the large footprints. In some cases, libraries have partnered with their institutions to enhance the spaces for intellectual pursuits in terms of learning and research with new collaborative work spaces for students, faculty, and researchers. In other cases, the space has been repurposed for institutional needs. As for staffing, I think the size of staff is variable depending on the institution. In some cases librarians may be more embedded within their institutions as the footprint is reduced. Forward-thinking administrators see the value of the librarian in terms of instruction, research, and reference. In some cases, institutions are expanding and librarians with new skills are being hired who can work with data, visualization, simulation, and other new services created through new technologies. Of course, there are always going to be places that see libraries as a financial burden. In those cases, they may centralize library resources to cover many hospitals or research centers. Sadly, there are administrators who are going to continue to close small libraries when they can’t see the value-added services libraries can provide.

Doody: The U.S. is experiencing a mini-boom in the building of new medical, osteopathic, pharmacy, and dental schools. What is the implication of this trend for medical librarianship?

Walton: The new schools being created across the country provide health sciences librarians with new opportunities. In most cases, the new schools are looking for a virtual library with at least one librarian, if not more, who can fill that embedded librarian role. The focus will be on instruction and research and most likely collaboration with the larger library affiliated with the school’s main campus for support with basic library services such as acquisitions and technology support.

Doody: What are the essential skills for the medical librarian today and for the immediate future?

Walton: Soft skills are essential. The librarian must be innovative, flexible and understand the value of customer service. Hard skills include a good understanding of technology, resource management, and how that can be leveraged to provide the most excellent services.

Doody: How would you counsel an MLS student who expresses an interest in beginning his/her career in a medical library?

Walton: There are many working librarians who comment that library schools are not providing the skills new librarians need. I spent some time recently looking through catalogs of library schools and I noted that several provide cutting-edge classes and produce new librarians who have excellent library skills. I would counsel a prospective student to do some research and find a school that is offering the right set of classes for a health sciences librarian to be successful.

I will say that one of the concerns many of us in health sciences librarianship have is that new librarians do not have the foundation in understanding such tools as MeSH so that they are not the “power” searchers they should be when they leave library school. There is a reliance on things like the UMLS that does the mapping of terminology behind the scenes. While this approach works much of the time, there is still this lack of clear understanding of the power behind the databases and structured terminology. New programs in Systematic Reviews and advanced PubMed searching are again teaching librarians these skills, and administrators must encourage their staff to take these classes to be effective searchers.

Doody: Knowing what you know now, would you still make the career move into medical librarianship when you did?

Walton: Absolutely, I would move into health sciences librarianship. There are so many positive aspects to this career. We have a professional organization, MLA, which is moving full speed ahead. We have the National Library of Medicine, which provides us with the resources, tools, and funding that are critical for us to stay on top of what is going on in healthcare and enable us to support these advances. Finally, health sciences librarianship provides us with the sense that we are contributing to the welfare of people in a way that can significantly enhance their lives, whether they are patients, consumers, or residents of a remote village in a developing country.

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