Interview with President-Elect Jane Blumenthal

In two years, you will become the MLA president. What are the responsibilities of the president-elect for the MLA?

A big part of being president-elect is preparing to be president. It’s a year to develop priorities and prepare to present them to the membership, make committee appointments for the following year, and plan the MLA Leaders Orientation for the annual meeting.  The president-elect stands in for the president as needed, and if invited, attends chapter meetings to present the MLA Update. The president-elect also is the board liaison to the National Program Committee for his or her presidential year. In my case, this is MLA ’13, in Boston, which is doubly exciting because it is the joint meeting with the International Conference on Medical Librarianship (ICML).

Have you thought about what your eventual presidential priorities will be?

I have, but they are still a work in progress. I won’t say anything specific yet, but I will say that I’ve been thinking a lot about the strengths we bring to our work and to our communities. I want my presidential priorities to reflect our resilience as individuals and as a profession, optimism about the future, and resolve to use both traditional strengths and nontraditional tools in pursuit of our goals. I also want to maintain a continuum of success by logically following the priorities of my predecessors as MLA presidents.

You’ve already accomplished a lot in your career and continue to do so. What advice do you have for the new librarians aspiring to leadership roles?  Was there anyone who gave you advice, or words of wisdom, that helped you throughout your career?

The best advice is individual and situational, and this is general. Caveat lector. Use your common sense: be proactive, volunteer, follow through, don’t over commit, take risks, admit mistakes, don’t whine.  Be flexible – there’s no yellow brick road to leadership and you don’t want to miss a great opportunity just because it’s not what you were planning. And most of all, keep your sense of humor.

I’ve certainly had encouraging words when I needed them, but I think I was helped more by colleagues and coworkers who were good role models. They are too numerous to mention by name, but I’ve learned from all of them.

What do you think is your greatest professional accomplishment, or the accomplishment that you are most proud of?

I think I’m most proud of initiating the Taubman Library outreach program. It’s made a difference in the community, bringing health information to people who need it, and in the library, increasing our engagement outside our walls. In a way, outreach is a logical extension of translational research. It takes the results of research and education, and puts them to use addressing practical, everyday health needs.

I have to mention, too, that I was honored to be the first (and perhaps only) librarian to participate in the Harvard-Macy Institute for Leaders in Medical Education in 2003. I was one of several members of the Georgetown University School of Medicine leadership team chosen to attend over a multi-year period. It was an intense and focused educational experience that took my knowledge of medical education to another level, putting it all in a national professional framework.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing health sciences libraries today?

The biggest challenge facing health sciences libraries today is thriving in a difficult economy and challenging times. It’s no easier for being a widespread challenge, and for being outside of our control. Along with that goes our perpetual challenge around the escalating price of journals and books.

A second challenge is managing the transition from print to digital collections, a change that has moved faster in medicine and biosciences that in other disciplines. While most libraries and librarians have effective strategies and long term plans for this, there’s a commonly professed belief outside the library that everything is digital, and digital is synonymous with free.  There is a related belief that most if not all information needs can be answered by Google, and instruction is not needed in finding information in the Internet age. This leads to multiple challenges, as the need for space is dismissed, the need for funding questioned, and the need for librarians overlooked.

Third, we are challenged to define the role of the library in the spectrum of information dissemination and access. Open access, open education resources, and the NIH public access mandate are paradigm shifters. Even changes we support have implications for how we do our work.

If you had the opportunity to go back and change your career, would you still be a librarian? If not, what would you be?

That’s an interesting question. I didn’t plan to be a librarian, but I’ve been very happy in my career. If I had been more deliberate in choosing my path, I might have chosen differently, but I can’t imagine I’d be any happier or more successful.

Time for Jean’s Top Five Picks: What are your top 5 favorite always-can-read books?

  • Pride and Prejudice
  • The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency
  • The Complete Calvin and Hobbes
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  • The Last Unicorn

Any last thoughts?

Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with Midwest Chapter members. I’m honored to have been elected and excited at the opportunity to serve MLA as president.

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