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J Med Libr Assoc. 2010 October; 98(4): 300–302.
PMCID: PMC2947125

Evaluating a health sciences library residency program: what have we learned?

Carol S Scherrer, MLS, AHIP


In difficult economic times, institutions must make decisions about their core values and where they should concentrate their limited resources. Survival of vital programs can take precedence over other programs that are recognized as valuable, but not essential. Funding for immediate needs can, and often does, preclude funding for future needs.

Such was the issue facing the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) regarding its Academic Resident Librarian Program. Initiated in 1981 as a post-graduate appointment for librarians who were new to the profession and lacking librarianship experience, the program was suspended in 2007 for reevaluation and study. UIC has estimated that it costs the university approximately $14,000 per resident for recruiting and training, in addition to their salaries.

This study was designed to determine what the value of the program is to the former residents, whether the goals of the participants in the UIC Library of the Health Sciences (LHS) residency program matched or reflected those of UIC, and if UIC should continue investing in the program. A survey was designed to probe the initial motivation for those entering the residency, their satisfaction with the program, their greatest challenges, their biggest rewards, new skills they developed, their retention rate in health sciences librarianship, and the most and least valuable aspects of the program. The results provide insight for institutions considering establishing a similar residency or evaluating current programs. The responses also provide a view of the issues that new health sciences librarians face during the beginning years of their careers.


In 1992, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) published a Systems and Procedures Exchange Center (SPEC) survey on internships, residencies, and fellowship programs [1]. At the time of publication, eleven libraries offered residency programs. In 2001, twenty-two academic librarian residency programs were identified in the United States [2]. The ARL's SPEC kit defines a residency as “post-degree work experience designed as an entry-level program for professionals who have recently received a graduate degree.” This study adheres to that definition. The stated goals of the UIC program were:

  1. increasing the pool of qualified academic librarians with an emphasis on traditionally underrepresented groups
  2. providing an opportunity to work with leading academic library and information science professionals in a guided environment
  3. preparing emerging academic library professionals, emphasizing strong commitment to research

The decision by an institution to continue supporting a residency program is significant and has farreaching implications for the hosting institution, the profession, and those librarians hoping to begin a library career in an academic setting. This is especially true in the health sciences where two years' experience is often a prerequisite for employment, making residency programs highly competitive. Over one hundred new library graduates applied each year the UIC program was offered. The minimum requirement was the recent completion of a master's degree from an American Library Association (ALA)–accredited program. Approximately one-third of the UIC applicants expressed an interest in the health sciences, and these were the applicants who were interviewed for the LHS positions. This brief communication reports on the evaluation of only one part of the UIC program, that of residents who completed at least one year of the program at LHS between 1997 and 2007. All the LHS residents served in the information services department whose services include reference, teaching, and outreach.


Seventeen librarians completed at least one year of the residency program at LHS between 1997 and 2007. One has since died. The sixteen remaining librarians were contacted by email and asked if they would participate in a study evaluating the residency program. They were informed that the study had been approved by UIC's Institutional Review Board (IRB) and that participation was voluntary and would in no way affect their relationship with UIC should they decide to participate or not to participate.

All sixteen former LHS residents agreed to participate. A research assistant, with no previous contact with the residents, administered the survey. This was done with the intention of eliminating any influence on how the residents responded.

After receiving a positive response to participate from each former resident, the research assistant arranged for a mutually convenient time to call and administer the survey (Appendix, online only) over the telephone. The participants were told it would take approximately 15 minutes for completion and that results would be anonymous. All 16 (100%) of the former residents did participate, although not all answered every question.


The survey provided both qualitative (Table 1) and quantitative information with respect to the UIC residency program.

Table 1
Summary of survey results

When asked retrospectively what factors they remembered as important in accepting the UIC residency position, 14 (87%) of the former LHS residents remembered the desire for professional experience in an academic library as somewhat or very important. This was closely followed by 12 (75%) reporting health sciences experience as somewhat or very important.

When asked what they valued once they had completed the program, all 16 of the former LHS residents identified professional experience as somewhat or very important, followed by 15 (94%) listing reference experience and entry in the field as somewhat or very important. Networking opportunities were listed next in importance by 14 (87%) while 13 (81%) cited introduction to professional colleagues and teaching experience as next in importance.

Although few responded to the question asking what the least valuable aspect of the program was, the consensus of those responding was that a more structured program including well-designed seminars would improve the experience.

At the time of the survey in 2009, 14 (87%) were employed in libraries; of these, only 4 (25%) were employed in academic health sciences libraries. One (6%) was employed in an academic library. Of the 16 participants in the LHS program, only 2 (12%) were from underrepresented groups and neither of them was in an academic library at the time of the survey.

When asked if they had engaged in their own research since leaving UIC, 11 (73%) of the 15 who responded to the question said yes; of these, 6 (40%) have published in a peer-reviewed journal.


The first goal of the UIC program, increasing the pool of qualified academic librarians with an emphasis on traditionally underrepresented groups, met with mixed and discouraging results with only 5 (31%) of the former residents being employed in an academic library. Of the 16 participants in the LHS program, only 2 (12%) were from underrepresented groups and neither of them was in an academic library at the time of the survey.

The second goal, providing an opportunity to work with leading academic library and information science professionals in a guided environment, proved successful from the perspective of both the residents and the institution. Previous research has shown that residents are largely motivated by the desire to gain experience. Lanier and Henderson—who studied residents of three programs, National Library of Medicine (NLM), Library of Congress, and UIC—in 1997 found that “respondents seemed to agree that the reason they entered the internship was to gain experience, network, and acquire the skills that would allow them to specialize in their careers” [3]. These desires were reflected in the LHS residents' decision to accept the UIC residency position.

The third goal, preparing emerging academic library professionals with strong commitment to research, met with mixed and encouraging results. While the number of librarians who stayed in academic libraries was relatively low, the number committed to research, whatever their subsequent library setting was high with 11 (73%) librarians engaging in their own research since leaving UIC.

There were other findings not as closely tied to the library's goals that were of interest. The fact that lack of teaching experience was listed as the top challenge to new residents points to a continuing need for library students to be trained in techniques for teaching adult learners. A 2003 study indicated that the biggest change in health sciences librarianship in the previous ten years was the increasing emphasis on teaching [4]. This need for librarians to possess teaching skills has not abated.

This survey had a number of limitations; for example, it did not include resident librarians at other UIC libraries, nor did it include all those who participated from its inception in 1981. And participants were asked to remember motivations and responses from events that occurred sometimes as long as ten years ago, which may have changed the experience.


This survey demonstrated that the residency program provided many benefits to the newly graduated librarians who gained experience and expressed satisfaction with that experience, even though not all followed an academic health sciences career. Besides needing training in techniques for teaching adult learners, new librarians also need guidance in time management and in learning how to balance the many demands of their professional positions. Working in a real setting provides new librarians with the practical experience to decide if that setting is the right one for them, while they may in fact decide it is not.

How libraries and librarians can broaden this opportunity for experiences needs to be explored and new programs devised. Some models for offering practical experience already exist such as the NLM Associate Fellowship program, but these are not sufficient to meet the demand or interest. Instead new models need to be devised. NLM through the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NN/LM) or professional organizations such as the Medical Library Association or ALA might sponsor the financial overhead of one or two year programs, while various institutions continue to pay the residents' salaries. Placements could be on a rotating basis at many institutions, so that the new librarians receive a variety of experiences, in which all hosts benefit from the innovations new blood inevitably brings, but no one host would bear the complete financial burden. Individual libraries need to connect with graduate library schools to initiate internships or practicum placements. At the time of this publication, UIC has not decided whether to reinstate its program, but LHS is proposing a collaborative practicum with another academic health sciences library for students interested in health sciences librarianship. As former residents rise through the ranks of the library profession and go to institutions not previously hosting a residency program or practicum, they need to offer to serve as mentors as they themselves were once served.

Electronic Content


Journal of the Medical Library:


ECA supplemental appendix is available with the online version of this journal.


1. Internship, residency, and fellowship programs in ARL libraries, SPEC Kit #188. (Washington, DC: ARL; 1992)
2. Brewer J, Winston M.D. Program evaluation for internship/residency programs in academic and research libraries. Coll Res Libr. 2001 Jul;62(4):307–15.
3. Lanier D, Henderson C.L. Library residencies and internships as indicators of success: evidence from three programs. Bull Med Libr Assoc. 1999 Apr;87(2):192–9. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
4. Scherrer C.S. Reference librarians' perceptions of the issues they face as academic health information professionals. J Med Libr Assoc. 2004 Apr;92(2):226–32. [PMC free article] [PubMed]

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