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Logo of jmlaJournal informationSubscribeSubmissions on the Publisher web siteCurrent issue of JMLA in PMCAlso see BMLA journal in PMC
J Med Libr Assoc. Jul 2003; 91(3): 287–290.
PMCID: PMC164391

Patricia L. Thibodeau, Medical Library Association, President, 2003–2004

James Shedlock, A.M.L.S., AHIP, Director1

“Never say never” is a wise piece of advice. To ignore it means to lose many opportunities in life. How Patricia L. Thibodeau, AHIP, the new president of the Medical Library Association (MLA), has learned the value of “never saying never” says much about who she is and how she approaches the opportunities that life has to offer her. With Pat as our new leader, we will be able to learn from her how to take advantage of the opportunities facing our profession.

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How has Pat learned “never to say never?” It started way back. Pat always wanted to be a librarian. Growing up in rural New Hampshire, libraries provided the route to move beyond the limits of the local environment. She started by volunteering in her high school library. This early experience hooked Pat as libraries became her passion, so much so that college was merely a means for her to get into a library science program, earn her degree, and get on with being a librarian.

Pat started out thinking she would study languages while attending the University of New Hampshire (UNH), but she liked history even more. Research for writing papers fed her interest in library work as did the need for additional job experience. This work would fit into her plan, as Pat thought she would eventually work in a public or academic library. Never would she think of working as a children's librarian. Never. But that position was what she was offered and where she was needed when she applied for library work. At that time, the Dimond Library at UNH also served the town of Durham, New Hampshire, and kept children's books for public use but, more importantly, for the teachers' curriculum at UNH. Pat started doing collection development work by sitting down on the children's tiny chairs and matching selection lists against the children's card catalog. She was challenged to interpret difficult title entries and learned to understand complicated cataloging rules. She found she liked the work a lot and was aided by her supervisor who became a wonderful mentor, one of a series throughout her career. Her mentor in the children's room did what mentors do best—guided Pat to other positions in the library that matched Pat's original job application and encouraged her to seek different experiences to aid her future library school application.

After Pat's “never” job, she moved on to work in technical services while finishing her degree. This work reinforced Pat's interest in technology, combining her love of cataloging and related services with learning to use the new OCLC beehive terminal. Her college work experience kept reinforcing her positive association with libraries and the profession. Her supervisor recognized Pat's skills and interests and kept offering opportunities to learn new things.

This positive reinforcement by mentors is another lesson learned and one that she tries to apply in her current role as an academic library director. Her work with emerging leaders provides examples of Pat's effort to mentor staff. Julie Garrison, AHIP, former associate director for public services at the Duke University library and now director of off-campus library services at Central Michigan University, considers herself lucky to have worked with Pat.

Pat, in particular, has always been there to talk to when I had an idea I wanted to explore or a problem or issue that needed to be resolved. She has an open door policy and, no matter how busy her day, takes the time to talk with the staff. . . . I believe that as a manager, Pat was able to identify my strengths and capitalize on those to help me grow in my career and to do good things for the library. I felt as though I had independence to learn on my own when I wanted it, but that support and advice were always there from Pat when I needed help.

Eric Albright, AHIP, director of the Tufts University Health Sciences Library and former assistant director for public services at Duke, had similar experiences working with Pat.

Pat has been instrumental in my career development as a mentor and guide. I accepted my first position at Duke, for a large part, because I knew I would be working for Pat and would be able to learn from her. When I accepted that position, she knew that my long-term goal was to become a library director. As I worked in various roles and activities at Duke, Pat gave me a great deal of advice, guidance, and opportunity, and she was the ideal model of what it meant to be an effective leader. I am quite thankful for the time I had working with Pat as it has served me well in my current position.

Pat entered the library science program at the University of Rhode Island (URI) in 1975. She immediately applied for jobs in the library science library and was hired to work as an OCLC input operator. This position led to other activities common at the time, such as entering original cataloging records, finding cataloging-in-publication (CIP) records that needed modification, and performing subject authority work. Pat won graduate student assistantships that brought her into contact with a new set of mentors. Pat worked closely with Frances Chin on cataloging projects that eventually led to classroom instruction and lecturing as well as aiding fellow students trying to master their cataloging skills. Pat's work with Lea Bohnert led her to understand more about using computers for bibliographic retrieval and to her beginning attempts at programming. At URI, Pat began to work with Evelyn Daniel, now at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science, who taught Pat more about the role of media technologies as they relate to information access and service.

While in college, Pat met her husband, Steve Melamut. Their mutual interest in technology brought them together, while standing in line to retrieve punched cards and programming output at the computing center. Ever since, technology has been one of their mutual interests at home and at work. Five years ago, Steve even pursued Pat's passion for librarianship by leaving pharmacy and pursuing a career in law librarianship.

Another of Pat's “never” lessons began during her graduate school days. Pat hated the administration courses in library school. Pat said, “While I knew we needed to know the basics, I also knew that I would never be an administrator.” She recalled heated discussions with another mentor, Daniel Bergen, about the necessity of students acquiring administrative skills. “What if they crown you queen of the cataloging department? What would you do without these skills?,” her mentor would challenge. “Not for me,” was Pat's heated reply. “Never.”

After graduation, Pat took her first position in cataloging at Rhode Island College. Pat was in her element until the library's head of reference declared catalogers should help out at reference for evenings and weekend. Pat's thought was, “Not me. I could never do reference.” But it turned out that Pat liked doing reference work. Her cataloging skills had prepared her to be a great reference librarian, knowing exactly how the literature was organized, and the added benefit for Pat was that reference work helped improve her cataloging skills.

As Pat gained more work experience, her colleagues told her about a vacant position at the Women and Infants Hospital of Rhode Island. The hospital sought a medical librarian for a two-person library. Again, Pat thought never—she could never be a medical librarian. They were too highly skilled in areas, the sciences, that she never thought to explore. Urged by her colleagues, Pat remembered to never say never and looked at the position as an opportunity to explore something new and different. Pat met with a female administrator, a rarity at the time, who quickly hired her to take charge. The position also required Pat to be the research administrator for the hospital's institutional review board (IRB). While the position challenged two of Pat's nevers—to be a medical librarian and to be an administrator—she managed to make a success of it. Again, Pat was intrigued by the challenge of the position and the learning opportunity it afforded her. Even though the hospital was small in terms of bed size, it was highly specialized in obstetrics, gynecology, and neonatal care, which meant it was also involved in National Institutes of Health (NIH) research and medical education through affiliation with the medical schools at Brown and Tufts Universities. Pat was exposed to all types of individuals in academic medicine—residents, medical students, fellows, researchers, and experts in clinical medicine—while mastering her role as hospital librarian.

Here, Pat again merged her interests in several library areas. Pat worked on the IRB policy manual at home using a TRS 80 computer. This activity impressed colleagues, as most were used to seeing computers as available for word processing in the work environment and nothing more. Pat routinely used her home computer for everyday operations. Audiovisual work, another constant activity in her career, surfaced. Pat was called upon to organize film resources and to develop an effective distribution system for films and equipment throughout the hospital. This work expanded so much so that Pat hired an audiovisual librarian, and they began to offer slide and video production services to hospital users.

While at the hospital, Pat was able to learn much from another mentor, George Anderson, chair of the Human Research Committee, who taught Pat the intricacies of politics involving academic medicine and the hospital. He taught her to see the politics and acknowledge them but not get caught up in them.

Pat's greatest challenge as a hospital librarian, however, was to manage herself out of a job. Women and Infants Hospital began to merge with the Rhode Island Hospital in 1982, and Pat worked through the details of moving collections and services over to the much larger hospital library. Pat could have turned the other half of her position as research administrator into a new career. However, she chose to stay with her primary love and continue her career in hospital librarianship at the Mountain Area Health Education Center (AHEC) in Asheville, North Carolina.

The job posting in the MLA News seemed to be designed for Pat. It appeared to combine her interest in administrative duties with a chance to work further with audiovisuals and technology. Pat accepted this library director position because it would again involve new challenges, primarily in outreach and education services, as well as the challenge of living in a new geographic area. Pat had been known to say that she would never live in the South. The mountains of western North Carolina and mild winter weather prompted her to look at the position as a new opportunity.

Pat learned and accomplished much in this new position. Besides outreach and education services, Pat was able to take on the new challenge of introducing personal computers into library operations and user services. Opportunities for teaching users how to apply computing in their professional lives became the focus of Pat's vision for the library, and so, the library built the first computer training lab for the AHEC staff and then expanded it for training health professionals. Audiovisual production was again part of Pat's library responsibility and included more slide and video production experiences. While working at the AHEC, Pat earned her master's degree in business administration. Pat's motivation for additional degree work came from her experience in administration and her recognition that libraries can learn a lot from the business world especially when facing tight budgets, demand for services, and the need to present the library's case in front of savvy business leaders.

Pat also learned a great deal about the value of strategic planning. Serving a sixteen-county rural area and working with a wide range of health care institutions—like small country hospitals, nursing homes, public health departments, tertiary hospitals, and various health practices—requires a broader perspective on service. Pat used planning initiatives to aid her successful management. While managing a more complex operation for library outreach, Pat developed her service philosophy: find out what is most important to users and then design and customize services to meet those needs. In addition, if librarians concentrate on doing the right things for users rather than doing the wrong or unimportant things to perfection, the greater the benefits that come to the library. When she left the Mountain AHEC, her title had changed to director of the Division of Information Services, a reflection of her additional responsibilities beyond library management.

Opportunities for Pat did not end in Asheville, North Carolina. When the associate director position opened at the Duke University Medical Center Library in 1993, Pat applied and accepted the university's offer. In 2000, Pat assumed the director's position and began to build a team of librarians eager to meet the challenges brought about by changes in information technologies, scholarly publishing, and curriculum reform. Lately, her skills in planning and politics are paying off as she and her staff meet the challenges of downsizing a significant collection of resources.

All of the above is a nice outline of Pat's career, but what does it say about the kind of person she is and the kind of leader she will be? For me, I think it says that Pat is someone who is willing to open her mind to other possibilities. All of the above examples say more about Pat's interest in being challenged and in looking for opportunities than saying never to a chance for something new.

I certainly remember her this way from our mutual association in North Carolina; our common professional concerns in managing private, academic, and medical center libraries; and our shared experiences in MLA, particularly service together on the Board of Directors. Pat and I were introduced by colleagues when she worked at the Mountain AHEC and I was at the Health Sciences Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). In fact, Pat was introduced to me as a librarian who wanted to change the way librarians offered services by emphasizing the application of new information technologies. Because this was of interest to me in my role as an academic librarian, we had a natural affinity around personal computers as agents of change in library services. When I moved to Chicago, Pat and I remained in contact because of our similar academic roles plus our relationships with people we knew in common. We each shared lots of war stories at MLA meetings, and often I would look to Pat to see how she solved management problems at Duke because hers was a peer institution for me. She became a great source of best practices in everyday management and continues to be so.

The time we spent on the Board of Directors was one of great challenge and excitement. Pat came to the board as head of Section Council. With her presence, the board gained a very sharp, insightful, and intelligent professional. Pat proved to be a great listener; she was not one to want the limelight, so when she spoke up at board meetings, it was after carefully hearing what others had to say. She would always bring new insights into the discussion and offer compromises or new solutions to solve the issues facing the board. As Section Council head, Pat had to be the great communicator. She was called upon to articulate the pros and cons that section leaders offered in their discussions, and she conveyed the council's consensus with great clarity, thereby making it easy for the rest of the board to understand what representatives of the membership had to say about a particular issue.

Like many of our great leaders, Pat's interest in serving as MLA president is motivated by a genuine desire to contribute to the good of the association and the profession. She recognizes that MLA is facing difficult issues. One is recruitment. Because Pat has always had professional interests in technology, she envisions technology as a useful means for recruitment. At the same time, she recognizes the need to look at professional education in a new light. By combining new ways to teach library science via technology and coupling these methods with local, hands-on experiences, such as internships, MLA could offer new ways of creating librarians for the future in a kind of “grow-your-own” approach to the recruitment challenge.

Pat also recognizes that valuing our skills is another major issue facing MLA. Systems analysis is an often undervalued skill that many medical librarians possess and could apply more broadly in our local institutions. Negotiation is another skill many librarians have had to use for almost every purchase of a new electronic resource. Pat wants to promote the skills many health sciences librarians possess, and she believes this new emphasis on skills will also benefit in recruiting new members.

Pat's life story tells us much of what we can expect from her leadership role in MLA. In her vision, MLA is ripe with opportunities. By working together, Pat emphasizes that we can develop the tools we need to address the common problems and current issues facing all types of medical libraries; we can speak with one voice and be heard on a national level; and we can improve our role in society as we work to improve users' access to health information. Pat has learned never to say never, because she knows the value in opportunities, sometimes obvious and sometimes hidden, but always present if one is open to looking for them.

Articles from Journal of the Medical Library Association : JMLA are provided here courtesy of Medical Library Association
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