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Hospital Librarian

Pam Kress-Dunn

Some people seem surprised to find a library in a hospital. But it’s here, and so am I. Having been a librarian in lots of different libraries–public, academic, archival–I jumped at this job when it opened up. Little did I know what I was getting into.

Like many medical librarians, I work solo. I do have a volunteer who, despite being decades older than me, works tirelessly during the two days a week she’s here. But I’m the one who does the lit searches, tracks down the articles in medical journals and finds the piece of information the doctor requires before the surgery that’s scheduled for noon.

My predecessor told me about his most harrowing moment: A surgeon needed information–stat!–and it was available only from a journal our library didn’t carry. So he placed an interlibrary loan request, marking it “Urgent: Patient Care.” When the article came through on the fax machine, he read it aloud over the phone to the surgeon, who was standing in the OR as a nurse pressed the receiver to his ear.

I’ve had my own anxious moments. I’ve ferreted out and hand-delivered articles and abstracts for doctors who are clad in scrubs and waiting in the OR lounge. Occasionally one of them has helpfully drawn me a picture of, say, the flap he plans to put in a patient’s stomach, so I’ll understand just what he’s looking for. I’ve had an ob-gyn whose patient was in the throes of a difficult labor call me to ask for the latest practice bulletin from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. I’m a mom; I winced in empathy even as I sent the article to the Birth Center.

Like any good librarian, I keep my research confidential. If Dr. X is researching topic A, I don’t mention it to Dr. Y. Nor do I tell my friends, some of whom worry that if a physician comes looking for the latest research on a procedure, it means she’ll perform it with a scalpel in one hand and a book in the other. I don’t think of this research as last-minute cramming but as the sign of a perfectionist who wants his methods to be up to the minute. I’ve chosen my own providers based on which ones keep up with the literature. It’s those who never call that I worry about.

I’m also privy to many more personal moments than you might imagine. 

Once, the matriarch of a large family lay dying in a hospital room upstairs. Because my husband and I are close with one of her sons, we know much about the family’s testy dynamics. I watched as, one by one, the woman’s grown children came into my library to use the computers, hold hushed conferences at the big table, or just sit silently holding an unread newspaper. Although I wished I could offer a word of comfort, I kept my own counsel, providing only what they asked for. 

For family members like these, a hospital library is a sanctuary. It can be a relief to escape the medical floors for a while. And librarians may not be doctors or nurses, but we provide an essential kind of caregiving. 

Librarians try to intuit what people need–whether it be silence, respite or practical help. From experience, I’ve learned that you never know what people are going through, or what they need. Often, the best I can offer is to keep my concerns to myself. 

One day, a woman came in and asked if she could use a computer to send emails informing others about a family member’s health. 

“Of course!” I said, showing her how to log on. 

Looking cheerful, she began typing away. Then she paused. 

“How do you spell ‘hospice’?” she asked. 

I spelled the word, my heart sinking, and left her to craft her sad message.

Another woman spent hours at the computer applying for disability on a relative’s behalf and bemoaning the tedious minutia required. I sympathized as neutrally as I could, not confiding that as legal guardian to my sister, who is disabled both mentally and physically, I fill out countless forms.

When someone requests articles on migraine, I forcibly stop myself from recommending the Michigan clinic that gave me my life back after decades spent in misery, shutting myself in dark rooms, my hand pressed to my head. This place is my visitors’ confessional, not mine.

Like any good caregiver, I devote myself to acquiring the necessary skills and materials. I subscribe to the local paper in part to assist the Pastoral Care nun who comes every day to search the obituaries, making sure “we don’t miss any of ours.” She remarks upon how many obits appear after Christmas, and we muse about whether it’s true that some people hang on until after the holiday is over. 

I buy books on obstetrics, books on leukemia, books on caregiving and Alzheimer’s. As my budget permits, I also buy what I think of as narrative healthcare books–the kind written by Atul Gawande or recommended by Krista Tippett on NPR. I even justified acquiring The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, a marvelous book, because it was written by a chronically ill woman. That way I have something to offer a family member who wants something transporting to read while he or she waits. 

Sometimes, though, I’m dreadfully wrong. One woman recoiled when I offered her Making Toast, about a grandfather caring for his grandchildren after his daughter’s sudden death. 

“Too close to home,” she muttered. “Do you have any mysteries?” 

Mortified, I made my apologies–and later that month gratefully took in a donation of whodunits.

Because you never know what people are going through, or what they really need.

About the author: 

Pam Kress-Dunn is the medical librarian at Mercy Medical Center–Dubuque, in Iowa. She holds three master’s degrees–an MS in library science, an MA in English and, most recently, an MFA in poetry writing–and contributes a column to a local biweekly arts and entertainment paper. “I write to document life’s events, small and large, and also to find out what I’m thinking.”

Story editor:

Diane Guernsey


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