Lydia Collins
Consumer Health Coordinator
National Network of Libraries of Medicine, Middle Atlantic Region (NNLM MAR)
(Based at the University of Pittsburgh)

Please describe the role of NNLM in the library world. How do you see this role changing within the next five years?

The National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM) exists to provide equal access to educators, health professionals, researchers, library staff, and the general public to quality health information resources. This is done so that individuals can make educated decisions about their health and the health of their loved ones. There are eight Regional Medical Libraries (RMLs) that provide outreach and support to their respective region.

Specific to libraries, the RMLs continue to evolve as the world of libraries transforms. There is a need for quality health information as medical advances are made, new drugs are manufactured, and experimental treatments are conducted. The general public wants to know what might work for them or their loved ones. Naturally, libraries of all types are used to help decipher the wide range of information available. The RMLs provide training on NLM and other reliable health and science information resources and map libraries to resources that are relevant to the populations they serve.

Tell us about the path or track that led you to your current position.

Honestly, I never imagined that I would work as a Regional Medical Librarian. My first professional position was as a solo hospital librarian in rural California. I then moved into academia, and was fortunate to work at my alma mater San José State University, which had just transitioned to the joint academic-public library with the merger with San José Public Library. I ended up moving East and taking a position at the University of Delaware serving as their Health Sciences Librarian. I was efficient and doing my job, but something was missing. The Regional Medical Library had moved from New York to Pittsburgh, where it’s currently housed at the University of Pittsburgh Health Sciences Library System. It was an opportunity for a new beginning and to do the type of work that excited me the most, consumer health outreach and designing health programming for libraries and community/faith-based agencies for diverse populations.

Do you have any such thing as an “average day” at work? What do your job duties typically look like?

There is no “average day”. There are times when you’re on the road traveling to exhibit/present at local, regional, and national conferences, or conduct site visits to libraries and agencies for 2 days to one week. Or I could be in my office with my door closed, headphones on in my creative zone, designing or updating an NNLM class on a specific topic.

There are days when you’ll see two or three NNLM Coordinators gathered in our office doorways sharing tales of our recent trips and bouncing ideas off of each other for new programs. Sometimes, a day is spent on the phone calling potential NNLM members to set up in-person meetings or holding a conference call to follow up with someone you met on the road who wants to learn more about NNLM and NLM resources. NNLM also provides funding for health outreach in the communities that libraries can apply for. So, some days I’m consulting with a potential funding applicant or reviewing award applications.

The one thing that I can say about an “average day” is that there’s always opportunities for me to tune into my creative side. Not a day goes by that I don’t spend time thinking new ways to share all of NLM’s great resources with our network members. The diversity of my job is a direct reflection of the different populations I serve and I enjoy that no work day looks exactly like the one before or after it.

What do you wish more librarians knew about providing health-related information to the public?

I wish that more librarians were aware of the freely available and reliable resources from the National Library of Medicine (NLM). NLM provides access to so many materials for a variety of populations. If you work in a library that serves K-12 students, there are a variety of fun and educational health and science materials. If your user population consists mostly of seniors, refugees and immigrants, or caregivers, we’ve got something for you too.

I hope that more libraries take advantage of the numerous training opportunities, both online and in person, that is available from the RMLs and then share the resources with members of their community. So often at the beginning of training sessions, I’ll have library staff tell me that they’re nervous about providing health information and aren’t sure what’s quality and what is isn’t. Well, NNLM Coordinators are available to help. The same thing goes for libraries who want to begin or expand health outreach and programming. NNLM has something for everyone and I encourage all libraries to reach out to their RML and learn more, they don’t have to do it alone.

You’re all about storytelling! Can you share a favorite story or anecdote from your time as a librarian?

A few months ago I was riding the bus home from work. A young lady sat next to me, I smiled and said hello. She looked at me and said, wait a minute, you’re that lady from the “Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh” presentation. I nodded and she shared that several months after my presentation, which was on improving patient-doctor communication, she accompanied her mother to an appointment. During our presentation, we had talked about how to prepare for an appointment, what types of questions to ask, and the fact that you’re allowed and encouraged to engage in dialogue with health care providers.

At her mother’s appointment, she said for the first time she was less anxious about being there. Even though it wasn’t her own appointment she often felt unequipped to question anything that the doctor told them. This time she had written a list of medications, kept a note of her mother’s symptoms, and had a list of their concerns. By the end of the appointment the doctor had eased some of her concerns and even discovered that her mother had been taking two different blood pressure medications prescribed by two different people.

These are the types of stories that I enjoy, and there are so many! My main job is to train on NLM resources, however, in that is the need to empower community members to advocate for themselves and their loved ones. There have been many times that I’ve offered a training session and introduced a group of library staff (clerks, librarians, and directors) to NLM’s resources. I like to lead discussions on how libraries will integrate the NLM resources they learned about into their services beyond a reference interview. The best thing about these type of training sessions is the exchange that happens among attendees: I don’t like to think of myself as a teacher, but rather a facilitator of discussion and ignitor of innovative ideas. I often come up with my best ideas when conducting a training session or having a casual conversation with a staff member who is equally passionate about their work.

Confession time: what, for you, is the most difficult or uncomfortable part of doing consumer health outreach? How do you (and your colleagues) work to overcome this challenge?

I think the most difficult thing about my job is providing outreach to so many populations. As the Consumer Health Coordinator I support public libraries; community and faith based organizations; K-12 schools (educators, health professionals and librarians); senior serving agencies; military, veterans and their families; LGBTQ; and other underrepresented groups.

It is challenging to have so many competing priorities but I think the strength to overcoming this challenge is to listen, really listen, to the needs of the library and agency staff and help guide them to do what works for their individual settings. No library/agency is like another, and recognizing this allows for me to learn how NNLM can best serve them.

What do you most enjoy doing in your spare time (what little you may have)?

When I’m not on the road for work or in the office, my time is spent focused on my daughter Soraya. As much as I enjoy being a librarian, I’m a Mum first. I have an amazing 10-year-old who keeps me on my feet. The two of us enjoy cooking and trying new recipes, watching movies, and traveling. I’ve always loved road trips and we spend a lot of time exploring the East Coast and Canada.

What would you like every library staff member who reads this member spotlight to do?

I want you to locate your Regional Medical Library and learn more about what is available to you. Don’t just browse the web site: email a staff member and really get connected. It is my hope that libraries will begin to do more with their communities around health outreach as there is such a need. If your library is not a member of NNLM, then join the NNLM network and take advantage of the many services we provide, at no cost to you.

I also want you to learn more about ALA, ASCLA and encourage ALA members you know to join and become an active and contributing member.