Collection & Research Services Librarian
University of Washington, Health Sciences Library
“I appreciate their uniqueness.”
The University of Washington (lovingly called the UW or the “U-Dub” by locals) Health Sciences Library serves a diverse group of 35,000+ faculty, students, and trainees across six schools and five states. “Between the students, faculty, and staff, it’s such an international group of people that sometimes what I would say is the norm for the Pacific Northwest is nowhere in sight in the classroom,” said Leslie Gascon (she/they), MBA, MS(LIS), AHIP, the Collection & Research Services Librarian. “This, of course, doesn’t excuse us from the necessary work of decolonizing the curriculum and confronting racism, ablism, sexism, classism, and more every day.”
The entire UW library system recently unionized, which has been a positive experience for Leslie, who now has first-hand experience with the power of collective bargaining. Learn more about this and how she is trying to combat the unwanted misuse of AI in the following BMJ Insider’s interview.
BMJ: UW Libraries unionized recently. That had to be exciting!
Leslie: Yes, the official contract was signed by all parties on February 1, 2023. This includes librarians and professional staff at the UW. The UW has a classification system that splits employees into categories, staff can be divided into classified and professional staff, and librarians are a third classification. So, we combined to be stronger together.
As you can imagine, this took a while; before my time, there was a year of quietly researching unionization, and bargaining started in October 2021. In the 16 months of negotiation before signing the contract, we held a one-day strike on October 13, 2022; the union membership voted on November 17, 2022 to authorize a full strike and planned to begin an indefinite strike on January 25, 2023. Thanks to amazing colleagues at the UW Libraries and union solidarity, we finally reached a tentative agreement around 6 a.m. on January 25, 2023.
The threat of our full strike made UW move at the bargaining table. Our amazing Contract Action Team and Bargaining Action Team – yes, the CAT and BAT, which we would cheer for with the cutest emojis – were incredible leaders and collaborators! Union members, including the CAT and BAT, confirmed strike authorizations from union boards and support from the community; union solidarity and public pressure were keys to our success, according to Reed Garber-Pearson (they/them/theirs), Integrated Social Sciences Librarian.
The delays were frustrating throughout the 16 months of bargaining. Still, we made gains on equity and transparency language, salary minimums of librarians, salary percentage raises for professional staff, an academic freedom clause that is the first for UW contracts, grievance and mediation process, and more!
I’ve never worked a union job, and it’s still new to me, but I love the camaraderie and that we’re all in this together and fighting for each other to make this a better workplace. That’s really what it’s about, improving conditions and expectations for everyone.
BMJ: The UW Libraries function under the umbrella of “one library, three campuses.” How does this interdependency benefit the libraries and the university?
Leslie: I work with five fantastic Clinical Research and Data Services librarians and librarians from all three UW campuses. I manage the Health Sciences Library collections, which is a significant proportion of the overall collections budget. We also have monthly CRC meetings, the Collections and Resources Council. Together, we manage collections for the whole university, the entire system.
Even though we’re one library, there are things that we do independently. And then there are group efforts, like in this council, where we’re working together to ensure that we’re making solid strategic decisions for the university. We are a premier institution with excellent research resources; living up to the R1 institution name supports our researchers and clinicians at all levels.
This includes working together to support all the grants that faculty, staff, and students bring. We want to make sure that we have the best resources for them. So that is definitely a group thing, but I focus on our six health sciences schools and two medical centers. There’s a social sciences group, a sciences group, arts and humanities, fine arts, etc., for major sections of the collection that have more in-depth knowledge. If we were fully staffed, we would have someone for everything, but hopefully, that will improve over time.
BMJ: You started at UW in 2021 after almost seven years with Boston University. Have you noticed any differences in working with faculty and students in the pacific northwest compared to the east coast?Leslie: For a little history, I was raised in the Pacific Northwest and moved out to Boston for seven years. A family medical emergency during the pandemic brought me back, and it’s so good to be home. I really love it.
But I found that New Englanders put less emphasis on chit-chat in the grocery store or smiling at people when you’re walking a nature trail. This just isn’t necessary, and people seem to go about their lives independently, which I appreciate.
When I first moved to Boston, I would smile and nod at people while commuting and say ‘hi’ while walking from the bike trail to the subway line. I kept getting weird looks and finally realized they must think I’m strange or a tourist! So that was funny, and I adjusted to this over time. I started to enjoy that I could just move through the world without worrying too much about smiling at every person I passed.
So now, returning has been a culture shock to a minor degree. People are chit-chatting with me, starting a conversation over the eggs at the grocery store. And I was like, ‘Why is the stranger talking to me?!’ as I readjusted to strangers interacting with me in public in that ‘Seattle nice’ kind of way.
Regarding differences in faculty and medical students, there are so many international students in health sciences, so at Boston University and the UW, it’s sometimes different from the US culture you’re seeing or even Pacific Northwest or New England culture. I’ve actually noticed more of a difference between the students and the fields they’re studying. I worked at Boston University Dental School for five years and saw dental students tend to have Type A personalities; they are very driven and often want to go into business for themselves, like starting their own dental clinic.
And the public health students at the UW are also driven, but it’s a very different focus. It is so much about helping others. It’s like that in dental, but these public health students are generally not looking to start their own businesses. They want to work for a nonprofit, so there’s just a different feel to everything.
I appreciate both groups for their uniqueness.
BMJ: The UW Libraries monthly town hall recently increased from 40 to 200+ monthly attendees. What is the purpose of the town hall, and what do you think led to the significant rise in interest?
Leslie: Mainly, the town hall gives staff and librarians a chance to hear about major operational updates and big projects from Dean Simon Neame, who leads these meetings. Like our ongoing storage projects that require moving many collections and renovating. So, significant projects that affect everyone.
I joined in February 2021, when almost everyone worked from home because of the pandemic. I think the UW Libraries had a bit of resource borrowing and some in-person services at the time, but the Libraries were mostly closed. So, attendance increased around that time, likely due to the meeting being virtual rather than in-person.
When we were trying to take union actions, this was a great place to get our word out to management, like, “Hey, this matters to us; please listen because we want to work towards a better UW with our unionization.” So the town hall gave us a really good place to do that.
BMJ: The UW Libraries operating principles include: “prepare students for success in life as information-smart global citizens.” Is there an openness at the UW, and what are the significant areas of concern?
Leslie: This is a priority, and I use this amazing Savvy Info Consumers Guide by Jessica Albano, Communication Studies & News Librarian, and Theresa Mudrock, History Research Librarian, in almost all my classes. Time is a limited resource, and I understand the pressure on students to find answers quickly.
The temptation is to read an abstract that fits what they want to say and just cite it. But I teach my users why it’s essential to read the article and analyze the methods to see if it’s actually a quality study. It’s not a waste of time to find articles in which maybe the study wasn’t done quite that well. Sometimes you might look at the methods and discover that only three people were studied, so you cannot make a population-wide conclusion with that information. However, there may be some evidence in there, or you could point out that everyone’s mistakenly relying on this article. So, I do spend time trying to educate our users.
I know all the librarians at the UW are working on understanding and creating guidance around Artificial Intelligence (AI) because we’re seeing students and faculty use AI more frequently. I should also clarify that what we’re seeing right now is not AI; it’s actually large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT. Folks are asking it research questions and using the citations from ChatGPT, which don’t exist. Like, they’re not actual articles but a fake DOI that doesn’t exist, or it’s an article not at all related to their question. And if you ask the LLM further questions, it will continue defending fake citations. But when you really start investigating, you realize it’s not a reliable source.
People get confused thinking this is a real research option, and it’s more that it’s really good at pretending to understand us and understand concepts. But it does not. It’s just very good at generating sentences. Words In Review: AI or ‘stochastic parrots’? by Bill Radkey (June 13, 2023) provides a good summary of this idea.
So that was part of the impetus for the Artificial Intelligence Guide I published last month and why we’re in conversations to hold a panel discussion on AI at the UW. The panel will be from the UW Libraries, and I’m just one of the people working on it. But we are looking to put something together from the Libraries about AI, and we really do need to be leaders in this because we are information professionals. If we let others tell us the best practices without contributing, they might not be the most inclusive or provide thoughtful instructions. People misunderstand what it’s like to research at the academic graduate level or just library research in general.
When folks come across one article, and they’re like, “Yeah, that’s all there is on my topic,” they may not realize that there might be hundreds more relevant research articles. Still, they haven’t searched very thoroughly because they used Google search techniques – also known as natural language searching. A ton of education is happening in this area, and the faculty see the need for it.
Personally, I try not to believe headlines and investigate a little bit more. I would say I’m way better at that in my work life than in my personal life because sometimes I don’t want to investigate a TikTok…I want to enjoy it. I usually joke with my friends and my partner when discussing an interesting topic, and it’s like, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was someone here who was really good at researching?!”
BMJ: A goal for the Libraries is to “strengthen contributions to campus-wide initiatives on equity and social justice.” What programs and activities are in place to help reach this goal? Are there any new activities being discussed?
Leslie: As part of the unionization, we fought for a clause specific to DEI. Instead of allowing it to be generalized, we required it to be specifically held as a critical factor in hiring, promotion, and retention to ensure that we are a diverse staff. It’s such an international group of people that sometimes what I would say is the norm for the Pacific Northwest is nowhere in sight in the classroom. This, of course, doesn’t excuse us from the necessary work of decolonizing the curriculum and confronting racism, ablism, sexism, classism, and more every day.
Even though the library sciences field is predominantly women, men are disproportionately leading the library sciences field, which is disappointing. Despite the profession being 80% women, director positions are 40% men (please note: this survey did not allow librarians and library directors to select nonbinary, trans, or other gender identities). Even with sexism alive and well in the profession, so is racism, especially for intersectional identities; the field is predominately white women, which is not great for women of color and can create toxic work environments for all people of color.
So we want to make sure the pipeline is helpful to women of color and to make the field more welcoming because we’re losing people before they even get to a library science degree and again when they’re in the workforce because we have such white supremacist culture that is not welcoming to Black, Indigenous and other People of Color. But we keep operating as if we are inclusive. We can say we have DEI in everything, but if we are not changing the culture, people aren’t going to stay.
I am seeing it improve for health sciences libraries, especially with the Medical Library Association (MLA) promoting some amazing women of color and through the MLA African American Medical Librarians Alliance (AAMLA), which a fantastic group of Black women organizes. AAMLA is a super active caucus that is welcoming to allies and advocates. So it’s a wonderful community to learn from – without requesting more work from – Black women who are already fighting to be recognized and appreciated in their field. I don’t want to add additional work.
BMJ: UW Libraries “keyboard tested” 650 e-resources for accessibility. How did you manage this significant initiative, and did you find most resources to be compliant?
Leslie: There’s a real effort to make sure that the resources we provide to the university are accessible. I can’t take credit for the testing phase, which was ongoing when I joined. But we are now using those reports on keyboard testing to work with vendors on enhancing their accessibility because we have a lot of students, faculty, and staff that need that, whether for a cognitive or physical disability or any need. We are looking to make sure our resources are accessible. And so that’s one aspect of equity that we’re working on.
BMJ: You are passionate about DEI and learning, always looking to improve your own way of thinking. Tell us more, and what are some ways you think the health science community could help advance DEI?
Leslie: There are two ways that I know of to think about intelligence. One is that it’s stable and you reach a certain amount of intelligence, and that’s just kind of where you stay. And then there’s the growth mindset where you can learn and keep learning throughout life – that is what I’m trying to implement in my own life.
But I get embarrassed when I don’t know something and can be hard on myself. So I’m constantly trying to reinforce that growth in other people and myself despite occasional discomfort is a positive thing. I also have to remind myself of the characteristics of white supremacist culture, one of which is perfectionism as I learned from Ione Damasco, MLIS, to help let this desire for perfection go.
From the community, I want to see more emphasis on finding and citing authors of color and with disabilities, which comes from the Cite Black Women Collective’s Praxis. There are more aspects of diversity, but race and ability are top of mind right now because the Guide to AI I just authored has a section on bias and how algorithms reinforce biases against Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color. I’m also working on building up my reading list of Black authors, queer authors, and so on, which I’ll get to cite and share.
I want to see more diversity in all aspects, including the options we provide our users, like diagnostic resources for skin of color, which is fantastic. I want to see more of it being affordable and more of that money going towards the authors of that research and the contributors. Often when people say diverse, all they mean is skin color. But it could be, you know, fatness, queer identity, disability, education, and a thousand other aspects.
There’s this concept of health equity tourism where it is helpful to people’s careers to speak or write about DEI issues, especially if they’re white; I was reminded of this issue at Breanne Crumpton and Mark Coltrain’s ANCHASL webinar Promoting Citational Justice in the Health Sciences. We’re seeing that sometimes there are white authors just reiterating the points already made by Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color and people with disabilities or queer people, whatever aspect of their identity. These things have already been said, and it’s getting restated from this outsider perspective of privilege that doesn’t have first-hand experience but is now receiving the most citations.
That’s why I feel comfortable publishing LibGuides on this subject. They’re full of links to ensure others get credit for their work. But they could be better, and I’m sure there are aspects that the experts in the field or people who have lived experience would tell me about better resources. That’s why I have the short feedback form on the left side, to tell me – what am I missing?
BMJ: What sparked your interest in a library science career?
Leslie: Around 2017, I worked as an administrative coordinator for Boston University’s (BU) School of Dental Medicine. I had my MBA, but that offered me positions I wasn’t really interested in, and I felt like I was hitting the ceiling. I didn’t feel like there was anywhere that I could go to keep growing, and I wanted to be more. I wanted something more engaging and fun.
So, my counselor recommended a skills and interest test to me. It took about 45 minutes per section because it was a huge quiz, so I spent the time going through what felt like thousands of questions – but I think it was only in the hundreds.
In the end, I received three pages of career ideas – single-spaced – some of which I was already skilled in and many I had shown interest in related skills, so I started going through them alphabetically. I made it to conservationist, and while researching conservation careers in the context of forests, I followed a rabbit hole to conservation in museums and then finally to librarianship. It reminded me of my teen years spent in the library and sounded interesting, so I set up some informational interviews. It reminded me of my teen years spent in the library and sounded interesting, so I set up some informational interviews. I spoke with librarians at three institutions and then a couple more.
After speaking with them and learning about it, I decided to pursue a master’s in library science. While in school, I started working at the Alumni Medical Library at BU, and, yeah, the rest is history!
Librarianship is a profession that highly emphasizes lifelong learning, which I love. So it will always sustain me because there isn’t time to get bored. After all, the second you get bored. It’s like, ‘Well, here’s a new thing! Let’s learn about AI!’
Please note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Interviewed by Lauren Jones, Head of Marketing, BMJ Americas