Get to know: Diana Cunningham, MLS, MPH, AHIP

Get to know: Diana J. Cunningham, MLS, MPH, AHIP (Distinguished)

“The library is now more a state of mind, a virtual place, but it is still a place.”

With heavy reliance on our journalism skills (i.e., pestering), BMJ Insiders managed to get time with Diana Cunningham, MLS, MPH, AHIP, an influential librarian for more than 50 years in the public, academic, corporate and state library sectors.

Although her well-deserved retirement is filled with competitive dancing, reading and learning with her grandchildren, Diana remains an active member of the library community. “I love staying connected through my professional associations, networking with peers, continuing education, conference planning, and social media,” she explained. “It is worth every penny to keep my memberships alive. “

She also stays connected to scholarly publications as a reviewer for the Journal of the Medical Library Association and as voluntary faculty at a former university employer.

Diana shares a few key takeaways from her experience in our Q&A below, including how to:
• Proactively prepare for—and defend—budget needs
• Stay relevant in a “DIY” world
• Prove value to deans and administrators

How have you seen user needs change?
Basic user needs, in my view, have not changed; users still want the information they want how, when and where they need it. If anything, they want to do more themselves (DIY) and they absolutely do not want to wait. Users expect everything now to be free and readily accessible online. If it is too much trouble, they won’t use it…no matter!

Much more is now online, yet many have no clue how to effectively and efficiently get information and use it. How to format can be confounding; almost too many new applications are pushed to users. They want to read less and spend no time researching or documenting in the old, more traditional way to doing research.

Hence, more training is needed to help users get the information they want and need. Users seem to want to read less, print less, and save more online. Not everyone wants to do it themselves. More knowledge and skills are now required to design and build more intuitive software to do it for them.

Budget cuts are having a negative effect on access to content in many libraries. Did you face similar cuts and how did you handle them?
Nothing, in my view, has changed here. Deans view the library budget needs as insatiable, and there has always been the need to justify more money. The prevalent feeling is that the library should take the budget cuts like everyone else. However, libraries and scholarly publications are NOT like everyone else so it behooves the library to rationalize their unique needs and how cuts in resources or staff will directly or indirectly effect research productivity. Even in the 1970s, library school management courses discussed budgets and advocacy.

At the State and Federal budget levels, library funding has often been initially “zero,” expecting library advocates to drum up community or “love my library” support to have it restored. One has to use logical consequences as arguments; that is, if you do that, this will happen. Legislative visits often must focus on direct impact of additional or loss of funding within zip codes or districts. When emails or listservs broadcast alerts to contact local officials, the library must respond. I recommend librarians familiarize themselves with the Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries (AAHSL) directors, which has a well-honed system of alerts for all relevant issues.

Librarians also have to be present and defend budget needs, cuts or funding increases. In general, the more I knew about the institutional budget process, software and funding, the better prepared I felt to get the attention of “The Money Men” who made the decisions. Libraries are not alone in needing budgetary prowess. I remember one Vice President of Budget and Finance faced with a Dean complaining about an addition error in his budget said, “My staff only knows how to subtract, not add!” It is always an uphill battle.

What to do? Libraries must continually build friends high and low, in-mesh them in your programs and advisory groups, and let them speak for you. One must present the institutional or community benefits and impact in the most local way possible, e.g. grant funding, increased user satisfaction, or new skills and programs.

Any tips to help other libraries prove their value, or ROI?
If an institution values your library, they will support and fund it. But it has to be in terms relevant to them; aim to quantify and demonstrate the impact of the academic institution on the local, national or global economy. Administration was convinced when the number of professional publications was increased in high impact scholarly journals, or more grants were awarded for new programs, or new programs were accredited partly based on the strength and support of the institutional library. New metrics are important to use, such as Altmetrics, which captures impact of journals and books through social media.

In 1992, one of my first actions as then director was to create an institutional faculty publications database and recognition event that has continued to date. Also, fostering new projects and programs via grants or sponsored funding always helped convince administrators that the library was carrying its own weight and getting its own funding where possible. Solid communication with the administrative decision makers is key.

What did you learn during your time in the academic sector?
More than half of my library career was in academic libraries, but research, grants and project development were also at the core of my jobs at the Maryland State Library and Enoch Pratt Free Library (EPFL). Government Reference Services at EPFL emulated the Congressional Research Services serving Congress. It was always fun to see the results of the research that I had done embedded in the Baltimore Sun. I have also worked at two corporate libraries: Westinghouse Defense and Electronic Systems Center where I designed an indexing retrieval system for patent disclosures and Teledyne Energy Systems where I re-established a technical information research center. I also worked at the Maryland State Department of Education, Division of Library Development, aka the Maryland State Library, where I managed the State Library network and all its components, notably the Regional Resource Centers. Automating the Statewide interlibrary loan network was at the core of my job along with managing LSTA federal library funds and projects. It was there that I learned to develop and apply strategic planning, implementation, and educational strategies that became part of all that I did. Finally, I also worked at the Baltimore County library system and absolutely loved working directly with both children and adult users. Recently, I began substituting at two local public libraries and adore all of the action there.

So, overall, what have you learned from your vast experience and what do you see for the future of libraries?
Above all, library users are people, people who need the same support: access, content, education and training, and help with a smile. I hark back to Michael Gorman and Our enduring values, who asserts that libraries continue despite the pervasive environment of change: Le plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Change is not now different, in fact, “Literature from any period shows the people of that time believed they were living in an era of unprecedented change.”* We have two options: Be passive and reflexive or be passionate and proactive. Library places may be different, our content and means of access may be different, but our basic functions providing information what, when and where needed has not. The library is now more a state of mind, a virtual place, but it is still a place. We are a social and culture institution and a social media of its own with enduring value to society. Now we collect intangible objects, increasingly they are remote and rented or leased, but we acquire, organize and provide access to them on behalf of our users. We have some new terms for new approaches, such as informationist, evidence-based practice, or asset management; but basically we still aim to provide high quality content to users now with more scientific rigor.

Becoming a librarian was never a career goal of mine; it was an economic necessity at a time which choosing a vocation was never an option for me. But as I look back, I could not be more proud of what I have learned and done, especially from my supervisors, my colleagues, my staff and my friends. What a glorious opportunity we now have to create an even more valuable library.

Diana’s first library job was as a freshman student assistant in the catalog department when 3×5 cards served as the search index. Subsequent experience included: Associate director of technical services, interlibrary loans and circulation, assistant director of reference and information services, and associate dean/director of two academic health sciences libraries. She has also managed two corporate library information centers and lead a full-scale research arm serving State government. Along the way, she worked as both a children’ and adult reference services librarian in public libraries.

In her free time, Diana enjoys tennis, which resulted in her 65+ ladies team recently winning the Eastern Tennis Association championship and competing with the best at the USTA National championships in Surprise, Arizona. She also discovered ballroom and Latin dancing which has become a passion. Always trying to “get better,” she now competes nationally at the open gold level in both American and International Standard and Latin styles. She joked, “If anything can break down the stereotypical image of a librarian, the jive can!”

Other lifelong “hobbies” include reading, knitting and learning with her grandchildren.

*Gorman, Michael. (2000). Our enduring values: Librarianship in the 21st century. Chicago: ALA, page. 3.


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