Kathel Dunn

How do you set up new and second-career librarians for success in your library? On this show Kathel Dunn, Associate Fellowship Program Coordinator with the National Library of Medicine, shares valuable information on ways to support those coming into the profession. It’s an outstanding model that all of us can use to mentor others into excellence in librarianship.

Kathel’s recommended book:


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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights in the profession. 

How do you set up new and second career librarians for success in your library? On this show, Kathel Dunn, Associate Fellowship Program Coordinator with the National Library of Medicine, shares valuable information on ways to support those coming into the profession. It’s an outstanding model that all of us can use to mentor others into excellence in librarianship. Enjoy the show!

Kathleen, welcome to the show.

Kathel Dunn:

Adriane, I am so glad to be here. Thank you.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: I am so glad to have you here. Today, we are talking about supporting new and second career librarians. You are the Associate Fellowship Coordinator at the National Library of Medicine. Will you please tell me about this program and how it supports new and second career librarians?  01:21 

Kathel Dunn:

Yes, I’m really happy to do so. The National Library of Medicine Associate Fellowship Program is a one year fellowship for early career and second career librarians who are interested in health sciences librarianship. We offer during the fellowship, an opportunity to spend a year learning about the products and services—research and operations of the National Library of Medicine through a structured curriculum, projects, mentorship and professional development. To expand a bit on those components of the fellowship, for a curriculum—it’s a curriculum about the National Library of Medicine. There’s a digitization program that you hear about—how we engage with our users, our databases, and the user experience, how we assess that experience and improve it, intramural research and extramural funding for for research, and reference and interlibrary loan, and then the NLM role in scholarly communication, open science and data science. 

Then for the projects aspect, the projects are proposed by staff, which lets you know that’s real work, it’s not busy work, or made up work—proposed by staff and selected by the associate fellows. So you get a choice on what you would like to work on. 

This year, the fellows are doing projects in generative AI—how you would use that for answering customer service questions, coordinating an alternative spring break for University of Kentucky library science students, examining how to make documents accessible, so readable by screen readers, and then investigating the impact of open access articles on downstream use.

All very relevant, very current topics and projects that they’re working on. The program is part of a long-term commitment on the part of NLM for career development for librarians. It’s a sixty-year-old program and was in-person until 2020. We are still offering a remote fellowship, in part because we have a renovation continuing at NLM, a planned renovation that will keep the program remote through spring of 2025, and then we’ll still be assessing on whether or not we want to continue in that space. Then the fellowship, in terms of support, has a high visibility within NLM, and it opens doors. Any door is open to the fellows to speak to anyone at NLM. They can talk to the director, they can talk to division directors, any of the subject matter experts. So it really gives all of that whole experience as a real support and launching pad for new and second career librarians.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2:  It sounds like such a great inroad. What benefits have you seen arising from this work?  04:35 

Kathel Dunn:

The benefits for the Associate Fellows is the opportunity to get a big picture view of NLM—a chance to connect with library leaders at NLM and across the country. We have a network of National Library of Medicine. There’s a chance to get to know what their work is and what they’re doing. Then the lasting benefits, I think, extend beyond the fellowship. A lot of the alumni associate fellows that I’ve talked to speak about the importance of their cohort, because we take between four and six early career librarians each year. That’s their cohort. They’re a tremendous support and a check-in with someone who’s at a similar point in their career, which I think can be really critical. I can offer advice and make suggestions, but the pathway that brought me to where I am now is gone. You know, it’s different jobs, different things that would take you there. So I think having that cohort is a real benefit—and that they stay with you throughout your career. 

The other thing, the benefit that can arise from the fellowship, both immediate and lasting, is the benefit of time. I don’t know of another space in your career where you think, I really have the time to spend on focusing on one thing, or a few things, and we really do that. A book that I’m reading has a great line in it that says, Creativity is sparked in times not crammed with tasks.

I think they sometimes feel very, very busy, but we really designed the program to give them time to learn, and try something new with a project, and figure it out and go in a new direction—or go deeper on a project, projects that the associate fellows have worked on, that they’ve selected. We’ve done studies, and we know that the projects have saved time, saved money, created new positions, and influenced decision-making. 

It’s a testament to the staff and the project that they put forward. But I think it’s also a testament to the associate fellows devoting the time and their intellect and energy into— maybe they hit a dead end and they figure their way out of it, or they make connections and offer more insights. So that’s a real both immediate and lasting benefit. 

Then I think, obtaining an understanding of the larger library world. I think of the phrase, You don’t know what you don’t know. Coming to the fellowship and getting exposed to research, and grant funding, and database creation, and maintenance, and terminologies, and health standards, and policy helps them know what they don’t know and get that exposure. I think then they might say, I didn’t even know this existed. And now I want to make this my career, which I think is a great benefit.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3:  Definitely a great benefit. How do you assess new and second career librarians applying for the program?  07:38 

Kathel Dunn:

We ask for a lot from people who are applying. We ask them to respond to two questions. We ask for their resume, for transcripts from undergrad and graduate, and we ask for three written recommendations, one of which would be from a library school professor. So it’s a lot, and we look at all of it. 

When we’re looking at the resume, we’re looking to see: Have they worked in a library or a library-adjacent—maybe in a museum or some other sort of nonprofit health environment? Or have they been in a healthcare setting? 

Then we look at their academic studies. We look at their undergraduate degree, how they did in school, what courses they took in information library school, not just that they went to the school, but what courses did they take? 

Then we look at their responses to the two questions. How will you advance innovation and equity in biomedical libraries, and what makes you a great candidate for the NLM associate fellowship program? 

Then we read their references, what others say about their perceived potential, their ability to learn, to grow, to work with others. We really look at the application that comes in. 

Then the assessment continues at the interview stage, where we look at criteria that will make someone successful in a structured, but self-directed program. Some examples of what we’re looking for are initiative, innovation—or I would phrase that as creative problem solving. Perspective-taking, can you see other’s perspectives? Or are you bringing in a unique perspective that we don’t have, particularly important when you talk about a user experience or a database creation, if you’re designing something that works for you, but not necessarily for other people, it’s not going to have widespread success. And then collaboration, working with others. So those are the things that we’re looking at when we hit the interview stage. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4:  It sounds comprehensive and a good way to decide what folks get to join the program. What feedback have you received from the new and second career librarians who have gone through the program about what their participation has meant to them?  09:46 

Kathel Dunn:

At the end of every year, I ask departing associate fellows, What is one word you would use to describe the program? Just in preparing to talk with you today, I thought, Well, I’ll look at the top words of the last fourteen years. Those top words are opportunity, eye-opening, life-changing, awesome, challenging, transformational and worthwhile. So that’s what I hear when they’re leaving. Hopefully feeling very happy about it, or very tired— maybe both. I’ve also heard them describe it to me as a step and a half into their career. Not the first step, but noticing that they are a little bit more knowledgeable about the library world that they’re in than some of their peers. They attribute that to the fellowship. 

When they start work in a library, they’ve told me that other staff turn to them when that staff person has a question about how NLM works, or who to contact at NLM. So they have that sense of being kind of an expert in the organization of NLM and how to get a request answered, or maybe how to have an influence in the process.

Then our alumni fellows, many of them who are influential in the field, whether as subject matter experts or an organizational leadership position, tell us that the Associate Fellowship year is like being given a road map for your health sciences career—that you know who the leaders are in the field and how to reach them, and that you know the direction things are going in. One library director shared with me, and this is kind of a quote from her, as she said, Without the associate program, I think it would have taken me another decade to learn the landscape of medical libraries well enough to dare to be a director, which is a great quote—great testament to the fellowship. She preceded me, so it’s one of my predecessors who I had the opportunity to accompany her during her year, but I think that’s a great encapsulation of some of the feedback that we’ve gotten.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: And a great testament for doing this kind of work. From what you have learned, what methods would you recommend for other libraries wishing to support new and second career librarians?  12:25 

Kathel Dunn:

If you’re able to start or have some kind of program—and I’ve looked around at library leadership programs, looked at different ones that are offered across the country, some that are not happening now, some that are still current. I think that they all usually have like five elements. One is a cohort, which is something that we offer. It’s a peer group, again, someone who’s making decisions that are similar to the decisions that you’re making or trying to decide. Is this a good next step? If so, how do I get there? So cohort, and exposure to bigger thinking and/or opportunities—like projects to work on,  exposure to bigger thinking. 

You get exposed to leaders who talk to you about what’s happening in policy or how they’re running their organizations or what challenges they’re facing. It’s not necessarily the thing that you’re in, but that you get to see, Oh, this is what people are thinking about. Ultimately offering opportunities, either projects or interesting high level visible work, is another component. So those are two.

Mentoring absolutely shows up in all of the leadership programs, a mentor, someone who you can talk to, you can check in with. It’s a trusted space. It’s a space between just the two of you to be a little vulnerable, figure it out, and to wrestle through where weaknesses are holding you back—what’s holding you back from your next choice, your next thing.

Then just overall professional development. The fellowship, that’s something that we offer, but I know other programs offer them—behavioral assessments: StrengthsFinder; the DISC. I know other ones like that give you a self-awareness—awareness of your strengths and how you operate, and how you operate with others—and resume review and interview assistance. So those are the components if you’re able to start or have a program or can offer some of these things. Then if you’re talking individually, I would ask an early career librarian. Show up where they are and ask. Support any efforts that they are involved in, and lend your presence to their efforts. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6:  And I know you’ve realized in supporting new and second career librarians that collaboration, credit sharing, and humility are the kinds of character behaviors that signify excellence in librarianship. Will you please share about that?  14:53 

Kathel Dunn:

I recently read a book called Misconceiving Merit: Paradoxes of Excellence and Devotion in Academic Science and Engineering, by Mary Blair-Loy and Erin Cech. It’s about science and engineering, but I took away a lot of it that could apply to librarianship— particularly for people who are in academic librarianship. The authors talk about the construct of excellence in science and where it’s flawed. They talk about the cowboy. This idea that science is, you know, the singular great person who operates alone. They’re self-promotional and they take the credit. It all belongs to them. 

They point out in the era of team science and highly collaborative work, that’s not really what real excellence is coming from. They talked about expanding the construct of scientific excellence from the Western scientific tradition and drawing on feminist, postcolonial and indigenous approaches, including perspective taking, collaboration,  credit sharing, and humility—humility, owning your own mistakes. 

When I read that, I thought those are characteristics that are part of the success of libraries. If science is, and recognizing, we need to really bring our characteristics of success more in line with reality of the current day. I think that libraries are more than ready to meet them in that space. 

These are the things that I think are important in libraries. Particularly, working in libraries is not a solo act. It’s working with others. It’s collaborating. It’s finding a way to share credit across a team of people, and not just the team lead, and developing services that bring in the perspective of others. So if you’re developing a service and again—if you’re not taking into account all the potential users that you would want to reach and what you would need to do to make something attractive to them, that works for them, you need to be able to bring in others perspectives, and find the people who have those perspectives and bring them there. 

And I thought, one thing I want to do then is affirm and value these characteristics.  One way I can do it is explicitly state that these are characteristics that matter to the NLM associate fellowship program, and to make that part of our assessment. Do I see, and do I hear when we’re interviewing? Do I see and hear our applicants reflect these values? Those are the people that I would like to see in the program. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7:  Thank you for that. Is there anything else you’d like to share?  17:59 

Kathel Dunn:

Yeah. You know, I wanted to say thank you to you, for introducing me to your podcast. I am on and off with podcasts. I listen to them in my car, and it’s been fun for me to get to learn from your previous podcast. I listened to one. I’m going to listen to more, but I’m really glad that you’re sharing that with the library community, and I’m glad to see librarians in other spaces, so I’m glad you’re in this space.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8:  Oh gosh, thank you Kathel. That is so nice. I love being in this space and hearing from librarians, like you say, from all kinds of disciplines. They inspire me every time I do a show, as you’re inspiring all of us here today. So thank you. Kathel, in closing, what do libraries mean to you personally?  18:28 

Kathel Dunn:

Libraries are the way forward. As a child, libraries were one of the first adult things I could do to get my own library card and choose my own books. Then working in a library was my first job, as a page in a public library, and later it became my career. I like that at this point in my career now I can help others find their way forward.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #9:  I love that. I was first a page too, and here we are now talking about ways to help others step into the profession. What you are doing is a fantastic model that all of us can draw upon when thinking about how to assist new and second career librarians, which is so important. What you do with the NLM Associate Fellowship program creates inroads for people and, as you said, gives them a step and a half into their careers, something that, without guidance, could take them an extra decade to accomplish. I’m impressed with what you’re doing and grateful that we could talk about it today, Kathel. Thank you so much.  19:18 

Kathel Dunn:

You’re very welcome. It’s been a pleasure.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes, tune in to Library Leadership Podcast.com, where you can now subscribe to get episodes delivered right to your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time. 

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