Get to know: Susan K. Kendall, Ph.D., MS(LIS)

Health Sciences Coordinator

Michigan State University Libraries

Librarian values are consistent

It’s clear to Susan Kendall that “collection management is at the heart of what health sciences libraries do today”.

And while this might seem logical, Susan believes collection management is often viewed as an old-fashioned librarian specialty, when it’s really the core. “All these other services we provide are about new ways to put users in touch with those collections,” she explained.

In 2018, MLA published a book edited by Susan that not only tackles the “how to” of collection management, but also demonstrates how librarians can combine traditional values and tools with new technologies to ensure good user experience.

Learn more about collection management and how Susan keeps the MSU libraries focused on user needs in our latest interview.


What sparked your interest in a career in health sciences librarianship?
My background is in the biological sciences, particularly in biomedical research. Health sciences librarianship is an exciting field of librarianship that is often on the cutting edge, and I already had familiarity with the types of faculty and students that work in biomedical research, medicine, and other healthcare fields.

The health colleges of Michigan State University range from osteopathic medicine to nursing, veterinary medicine and more. How do you stay up to date on the latest resources and technologies available for each field?
I attend conferences like the Medical Library Association’s annual conference to stay up to date on what’s going on in health sciences librarianship and health sciences in general. The librarians I supervise are each assigned to a college and/or specific group of faculty and students, such as public health, medicine, veterinary medicine or nursing. I rely on them to be the primary expert for their subject area and bring back ideas to me and the group.

Are there any key differences between the various specialties/departments regarding how they access content? For example, are some more tech savvy, while others still prefer hard copy materials?
It’s interesting—there are differences but a lot of similarities, too. None of them are coming to the library to access hard copy journals, because we have almost none of those anymore.  Our health colleges and programs are far flung, some not even in the same city as the library, so we purchase as much as we can in electronic format.

There are differences among these groups in how they work with librarians. For instance, our nursing college has a strong relationship with their librarian, requesting they do quite a bit of instruction for the students. Other colleges may do less of that but involve librarians in curriculum development or professional searching for grants or publications.

Some differences can be seen in the types of resources available for these groups. Veterinary medicine, for instance, has fewer information resources available in electronic format than human medicine does, simply because the market for human medical resources is much larger. This can frustrate the veterinary faculty since they would like the same depth of electronic resources as they see for human medicine!

 What are some strategies and tactics you find helpful when training new librarians in the health sciences?
I’ve found that collection management is an area where new librarians require a lot of training on the job. They often come with experience from library school in designing instruction sessions and how to teach a class, and I can send them to trainings on advanced PubMed searching, but collection management is a bit of a mystery to many of them and they may not have even taken a class in it.

My strategy is to take a stepwise approach, focusing first on electronic books, learning the platforms available, which to purchase title-by-title and which to purchase in packages.  It’s complicated.  Then we move on to serial purchases which require a long-term approach to budgeting and understanding the fiscal year. In 2015 I published an article on my training program.

You recently edited a book titled Health Sciences Collection Management for the Twenty-First Century, which published in 2018. For the book, you brought in more than 20 librarians to write about various aspects of collection management. Was there anything new you learned from them, even as an experienced collection manager?
A call came out from the MLA Books panel that an updated book on health sciences collection management was needed, since the last one had come out in 1997. I submitted a proposal and mine was chosen.

I think a book like this benefits from including many authors and voices in order to give a bigger picture of the many ways of doing collections work in many different types of health sciences libraries. As I edited their chapters or stories, I learned so much from these other librarians: different ways of allocating money, prioritizing purchases, assessing collections or user needs. I learned about individual projects building new electronic libraries, downsizing print collections, working with publishers, working with hospitals, special collections. I encouraged authors to be honest about their challenges, as those can be some of the most interesting details for readers.

What changes and big picture ideas does the book cover, or encourage readers to take into consideration?
My vision for the book was to show that, far from being an “old-fashioned” librarian specialty, collection management is at the heart of what health sciences libraries do today, and that all these other services we provide are about new ways to put users in touch with those collections.

That’s why the book isn’t just a “how to do collections”, although it has that. It also is meant to help us all think about the changes taking place today in higher education, scholarly communication, and healthcare, and how they affect what we do.  It aims to show how we need to combine our traditional values and tools with new technologies in order to meet users where they work.

In fact, despite enormous changes in all these fields, the guiding values of librarians have remained quite consistent over time.  One reviewer of the book noted that she appreciated this “antidote to that doom and gloom” that is sometimes preached about the profession’s future.

The world of scholarly communication is undergoing a lot of change right now; the drivers of this change varies by the issue. What are the evolving issues or trends that you are most closely watching?
Of course, the open access movement has been slowly changing the scholarly communications landscape for over a decade, especially in the biomedical sciences.  Mandates by funders have been behind a lot of the change, with the biggest recent mandate being Plan S in Europe.

We’re keeping an eye on these developments to see how they will affect us as a large research-intense university that does a lot of publishing. If models change toward funding authors instead of subscriptions, how will the university handle that cost?

Of course, even if research output is open access, there are a lot of other scholarly or professional information sources that the library purchases for which we will need funding. It can’t all go towards funding research output. Health sciences is particularly a rich field for these other types of resources that are trending, such as diagnostic tools, evidence-based medicine resources, and video/image resources.

Finally, the open educational resources movement is starting to touch the health sciences.  Faculty and students alike have a mind-set that instructional materials will be made available for free to the students, either through library subscriptions or through the development of free teaching resources. Some faculty are looking to the library to answer their questions about copyright as they think about developing their own instructional materials and putting them out on the web.

As the leader of the health sciences libraries of MSU, what are your thoughts on transformative agreements (i.e., “read and publish”)?
Transformative agreements are a trend that is going to be very interesting to watch. I’ve been contacted by publishers asking if we’d be interested if they had that kind of agreement available for our institution. From our library’s perspective, we are interested in supporting our researchers’ ability to publish open access without having to worry about finding funds, and these agreements sound very convenient.

The concern we have is that (at least what we’ve seen) such agreements appear to add approximately a 20% increase to the cost of a journal package. Makes sense, but if we calculate adding a 20% price increase to all of our journal packages, big and small, we simply can’t afford that without an increase in central funding. So, our challenge will be, do we pick and choose agreements if we can’t do them all?  How do we choose?  At the MSU Libraries we are waiting to learn what are the priorities for our university and for our consortium, the Big Ten Academic Alliance.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your career?
I feel like I’m making a difference for people at MSU.  For instance, I’m helping to set priorities and values that govern collection decisions, and I can see those decisions have a direct effect on researchers, teachers, healthcare professionals, and students, even, sometimes, when they don’t know about it. People are also so grateful for the time I and the other health sciences librarians take to give them advice on everything from curriculum, to publishing, to copyright, to grants, to sources for a paper, to just simply helping them get access to that one article they really need.

What is the most challenging aspect of your career?
It’s sometimes challenging to get people to understand all the ways that librarians can contribute.  I’m sorry to see, for instance, that some faculty have spent a lot of time and effort trying to get a question answered, say about a potential resource, that we could have helped with in much less time had they thought of asking.  MSU is very large, so sometimes it’s just word of mouth that people find out we can help them.

Please describe your current role at MSU
I love my current position because there is always something new going on. I supervise professional librarians, so my role is more to advise and support their ideas and plans rather than give them specific tasks to do. Their success is my top priority.

I put a lot of time into training newer librarians and helping them look for opportunities. With more experienced librarians, I challenge and encourage them in their continuing growth. I also interact with faculty, staff, and students in several of the biological sciences departments, teaching classes on how to use our library resources, answering their questions. It’s a wide range of questions. I might be answering a question from an undergraduate pre-med student who doesn’t know how to find articles for a senior paper on diabetes, or I might be answering questions from a faculty member about what she needs to think about for starting her own journal.

I also coordinate all the money that we spend in the health sciences on journals, books, databases, and other information sources.

Anything else you’ve learned that you’d like to share with your colleagues?
I’d like to share with anyone reading this who has a science degree and is considering librarianship that health sciences librarianship is a great profession and “alternative career”. I’m not actively doing the biomedical research anymore, but I’m helping to make that happen in many ways and that’s pretty exciting.

About Susan
“Health sciences librarianship is a second career for me. I started out as a scientist in the life sciences, with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a doctorate in cell and molecular biology. I even went on to do some postdoctoral research in genetics, but ultimately decided that my skills are better suited to a career tangential to the life sciences with a broader focus, not one of primary research in one particular area.

I pursued a library science degree and eventually got a librarian position at the Michigan State University Libraries as liaison with the biological scientists. When the position became open some years later, I was promoted to Health Sciences Coordinator within the Libraries.  I’ve now been here for 17 years and lead a team of 5 librarians who provide information services to the university’s health colleges, coordinate collection management for the health and biomedical sciences, and secondarily guide the library’s copyright services and activities.  With a background as a published scientist and many years of experience in health sciences collection development, I have a strong interest in scientific communication and am following all the changes going on in that area.

A lot of my hobbies have to do with enjoying and getting out into nature. I enjoy hiking, kayaking, birding, and gardening. I’m particularly interested in gardening for wildlife and promoting biodiversity and am making an effort to include native plants in my garden that attract and sustain pollinators and birds even in an urban environment like where I live in downtown Lansing. I followed recommendations from the National Wildlife Federation and certified my small yard as a wildlife habitat:  https://www.nwf.org/garden-for-wildlife.”


Leave a Reply