Practicing Medical Reference

Mary Carmen Chimato wrote: In light of medical librarian month, I thought this was a fitting story:

A student came to the reference desk yesterday asking for journal articles on “Topic X.” It became readily apparent that he wanted me to conduct the database search and print him out an article. I politely explained to him that while I would not complete his assignment for him, I would show him how to search PubMed and get the information he needed. I spent 25 minutes showing him how to search the database and how to interpret the results display, as well as how to check if the library owned the journals he needed. Then I went back to the desk and left him to his research. About 15 minutes later he came back and asked how to print (we have a pay-for-print service in the library). After I explained how to print in the library, one of my colleagues, who knew this student, came by and started chatting with the student. They went back to my colleague’s office where I am happy to report that the student received the same “hard-time” that I had given him. He showed the student how to search the database and worked with him for an additional 20 minutes and the student left with articles in hand.

The circulation staff noticed this whole transaction (the desk is not that big) and it prompted a discussion about medical reference (two of them are in library school) and the different ways to practice reference.

As a rule, I don’t complete students’ assignments for them (neither does my colleague). I will give them all the help they need, I will even do some hand holding if necessary, but I will never take the assignment sheet, sit down at the computer and conduct the search for them. These are mainly graduate students in the health sciences – they should do their own homework and I strongly believe that they need to learn how to search the medical and health sciences literature.

Some of our students will not work in large, university hospitals with the benefit of a medical library at their disposal. Some will work in small hospitals that only have Internet access. Some may work in an environment where they have no Internet access. I like to empower the students by showing how to effectively search PubMed. As the largest free biomedical database, this may be the only database they have access to, so learning how to get to the information they need is extremely important.

The only times I have flat out conducted a full-on database search for someone is when a doctor has come down to the library in scrubs, (this has happened more than once or twice), or about to go into surgery and needs to find out something immediately.

I think medical librarians remain important when they empart their skills and knowledge to others through instruction and training, not by mechanically answering question after question after question. Anyone can pretend to do that well, but by showing our patrons what we do is a skill and takes time and practice to get really good at doing, they value us more.

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