Reference Librarians' Perceptions of the Issues They Face as Academic Health Information Professionals

By Scherrer, Carol S. | Journal of the Medical Library Association, April 2004 | Go to article overview
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Reference Librarians' Perceptions of the Issues They Face as Academic Health Information Professionals

Scherrer, Carol S., Journal of the Medical Library Association

Background: Leaders in the profession encourage academic health sciences librarians to assume new roles as part of the growth process for remaining vital professionals. Have librarians embraced these new roles?

Objectives: This research sought to examine from the reference librarians' viewpoints how their roles have changed over the past ten years and what the challenges these changes present as viewed by both the librarians and library directors.

Method: A series of eight focus groups was conducted with reference librarians from private and public academic health sciences libraries. Directors of these libraries were interviewed separately.

Results: Reference librarians' activities have largely confirmed the role changes anticipated by their leaders. They are teaching more, engaging in outreach through liaison initiatives, and designing Web pages, in addition to providing traditional reference duties. Librarians offer insights into unanticipated issues encountered in each of these areas and offer some creative solutions. Directors discuss the issues from their unique perspective.

Conclusion: Librarians have identified areas for focusing efforts in lifelong learning. Adult learning theory, specialized databases and resources needed by researchers, ever-evolving technology, and promotion and evaluation of the library are areas needing attention. Implications for library education and continuing professional development are presented.


To ensure that health information professionals remain vital in today's rapidly changing environment, they must continually reposition themselves to thrive in their new surroundings. Leaders in the medical librarianship profession have consistently supported the profession's members in examining and articulating new roles to perform to remain relevant and best serve patrons' information needs.

Health sciences librarians working in the reference department have been offered many opportunities to expand their roles, including teaching in the curriculum in health professional schools [1], taking the library to the user's point of need [2], developing evidence-based medicine skills necessary for filtering and synthesizing the literature [3], becoming key players in the continuing education field [4], providing consumer health education [5], designing and managing electronic information systems [6], expanding the liaison's role [7], and providing outreach services to underserved professionals [8], in addition to the more traditional roles of providing reference services.

While librarians have been urged to expand their roles, little feedback has been garnered from librarians regarding their experiences in attempting to fulfill these new roles.

This paper asks and answers the following questions: Are reference librarians-with all the demands on their time and expertise-actually incorporating these new roles into their workday? If yes, what challenges have they encountered? What solutions to these challenges have they devised? What larger issues need to be resolved before these innovative ideas can be fully translated into practice?


The focus group method was chosen for its strength in exploring issues of importance to participants using their own vocabulary. Rather than forcing preconceived issues on participants, focus groups allow ideas to expand in new and often unexpected directions [9]. Interaction among group members is seen as a way of leading to revelations and opinions that might not have been considered in more controlled approaches such as written questionnaires or individual interviews [10]. Because members of a focus group are not selected randomly, the results cannot strictly be generalized to a population. However data collected from four or five focus groups can be viewed as representative of the perceptions shared by the individuals they represent [11].

During the time period of April to October 2002, the investigator explored the roles academic health sciences reference librarians currently performed and the issues they perceived surrounding these roles by conducting focus group interviews of reference librarians from four publicly supported and four privately supported academic health sciences libraries.

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Reference Librarians' Perceptions of the Issues They Face as Academic Health Information Professionals


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