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Ruth Holst, AHIP, FMLA, has always reached for the heights, from age four, when she climbed to the top of the grain silo on her family farm, to being the first hospital librarian selected to deliver the prestigious Janet Doe Lecture, to being elected the Medical Library Association's (MLA's) 2010/11 president. Like a number of her predecessors as MLA president in the last ten years, Ruth grew up in a small rural town. The second of five children born to Wisconsin dairy farmers, Ruth is intelligent, funny, conscientious, and friendly and is the embodiment of Midwest common sense and warmth.
A math major with a minor in library science from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee (UWM), Ruth always intended to be a teacher, like her mother. But when she graduated in 1970, there was a glut of teachers in Milwaukee, and on a whim, she applied for a nonprofessional position at Columbia Hospital in Milwaukee. Because she had a library science minor, she was offered a paraprofessional job in the hospital library, where she would spend the next thirty-two years and work under a total of thirteen supervisors. Three years after being hired, she earned a master's of science in library science from UWM.
In 1970, the library at Columbia Hospital held a reprint collection accumulated by Harry Beckman, who for twenty years had been editor of the Yearbook of Drug Therapy. The reprint collection had been used to help compile one of the popular “yearbook” series. Beckman was an important mentor to Ruth. He saw the need for the library to hold a core list of health sciences material, using a list published in the New England Journal of Medicine. He was followed by a second significant mentor, George C. Owen, who encouraged Ruth professionally, understood the importance of an effective hospital librarian, and increased her responsibilities in both the library and the hospital. Owen continued to update the reprint file until his retirement in 1981. Because the reprint collection was so popular with the staff physicians, Ruth continued to work with approximately twenty physicians to keep this quick reference service up to date until 1992.
The 1970s were a time when health sciences librarians would often spend hours on only 1 literature search—3 hours per search was not unusual—and as a result, searching took up a good bit of the librarian's time each week. As library services were increasingly used at Columbia Hospital, Ruth was able to hire more staff. She always saw to it that staff were well trained. The library eventually grew to house 10,000 volumes. By 1983, Ruth was named manager of the Columbia Hospital library that by then had a staff of 3.8 full-time equivalents.
Ruth saw the value of a hospital librarian being involved in many of the functions of a hospital. She was active in a variety of committees and quality improvement projects at Columbia Hospital. She contributed to such diverse groups as the Columbia Hospital Radiation Oncology Planning Task Force, Practice Patterns and Outcomes Committee, and, more directly related to the library, Health Information Materials Committee. Ruth worked on a wide range of projects, from coordinating a pilot project aimed at improving the quality of physician documentation of the patient record to providing leadership and administrative support to fifteen cross-functional teams that developed, implemented, and evaluated eighteen research-based clinical pathways (practice guidelines) for key patient populations. As director of the Women's Health Care Service, she was responsible for coordinating women's health programs for the hospital.
Ruth has always seen the value of working in groups to accomplish goals, and she calls herself a “group process junkie.” In 1970, there were few hospital librarians in either Milwaukee or southeastern Wisconsin. It was, therefore, only natural that in 1974 she became cofounder of the Southeastern Wisconsin Health Science Library Consortium. One of the activities of the consortium was to help coordinate interlibrary loans, which were so important to hospital libraries at that time. At the height of the consortium's activity, the group loaned 55,000 items to each other in 1 year. Ruth went on to serve as the presiding officer of the consortium. She also taught a number of courses in health sciences librarianship in the UWM School of Library and Information Science.
A librarian mentor Ruth speaks fondly of is Virginia Holtz, AHIP, FMLA, who was at the time director of the health sciences library at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Virginia introduced Ruth to MLA leaders who helped her become professionally active in MLA. Through her Regional Medical Library (RML) activity, Ruth met Jana Bradley, FMLA, and was invited to join Jana and Judith Messerle, AHIP, FMLA, in coediting Hospital Library Management, which was published in 1983 by MLA. As Ruth worked on her first significant publication, she knew that her editor-mentor, Beckman, would be “looking over her shoulders.” Ruth's skills were rewarded with an invitation to be the first hospital librarian to give the prestigious Janet Doe Lecture, at the MLA annual meeting in 1990. Ruth has served on numerous MLA task forces and committees and was named a Fellow of MLA in 2002. She has served on a number of boards, notably the New England Journal of Medicine's Library Advisory Board. She has won a place as a “Notable Alumnus” in the School of Library and Information Science at UWM. She has a strong interest in the history of medicine and was invited to be an associate member of the Milwaukee Academy of Medicine in recognition of her work as the facilitator of the Columbia Hospital History of Medicine Club during the 1990s.
Ruth was pleased with her position at Columbia Hospital and, for many years, felt that it was one of the best jobs a librarian could have. It was, therefore, with mixed emotions in 2002 that she and her family left Wisconsin for Illinois, where she began her current position as associate director of the Greater Midwest Region of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine located at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).
Ruth continues to be a prolific author and speaker, coediting The Medical Library Association Guide to Managing Health Care Libraries in 2000 and contributing to such publications as the Journal of the Medical Library Association, Journal of Hospital Librarianship, and Journal of Nursing Care Quality. She is a sought-after speaker at MLA annual meetings and Midwest Chapter meetings. She has taught many MLA continuing education (CE) courses on topics such as grant writing, clinical pathways, and measurement of the impact of one's work.
Like most good leaders, Ruth is not all work and no play. Ruth met her future husband, Bob Thiel, in college. Ruth and Bob dated off and on from 1966 until 1977, when they married. Bob, who works for the Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, describes Ruth as a detail-oriented person who takes responsibility seriously: “If she takes on a task, Ruth completes it.”
Few things can keep Ruth away from MLA's annual meeting, but in 1983 the birth of her daughter Alexandra did just that. And Alex's birthday continues to collide with the annual meeting to this day. Alex says the upside to that is “that I got to have birthday parties a full two or three weeks early, thanks to MLA meetings.” Alex has a degree in mathematics/biostatistics from the University of Iowa and currently works at Trader Joe's in Charlotte, North Carolina. She acquired a love of reading from both her parents and misses her mother's weekend cooking sprees.
Ruth's interests outside of work include cooking, reading murder mysteries, anything to do with Jane Austen, and singing. Ruth toured Rome in 2003 with her church choir and prior to that was a member of the Bach Chamber Choir.
In Ruth's biography printed in the August 2009 issue of the MIDLINE newsletter , Ruth confesses that, in her fantasy, she's a cabaret singer, but as her husband Bob reminds her, “cabaret singers have to stay up past 10 at night.”
Ruth's warmth, kindness, and charming sense of humor make her a joy to work with and know. Her colleagues consistently describe her in the same glowing terms. Mary Rice, the first doctor of pharmacy in Milwaukee, who worked with Ruth during her years at Columbia Hospital describes Ruth as a “fun, up-beat person to be around.” She notes that Ruth always enjoyed a very collegial working relationship with members of the medical staff. She attributes this to Ruth's professionalism, her sense of humor, and the fact that she is knowledgeable: “Ruth is always willing to learn and take on a challenge.”
Mary Wegner, the state librarian of Iowa, remembers first meeting Ruth at an MLA meeting in Chicago, where they sat next to each other at a CE class. She comments on Ruth's great people skills, which make her an easy person to talk to. She describes Ruth as a natural big picture thinker who is able to analyze how things fit together and as a great writer who is always working in a broader context. Mary sees Ruth's clear thinking and willingness to look into the future, along with her analytic ability as great assets for a future MLA president: “I'm excited not only for Ruth but for MLA. Ruth's forward thinking will carry MLA forward.”
The members of MLA are in for a treat—they will enjoy a leader who takes on a task and completes it, one who takes her responsibility seriously, and one who may jokingly ask herself, “What would Jane [Austen] do?”