The Librarian Is In

October 23, 2009

I'm no prophet, but my guess is that 2009 will be known as the year of the great health care debate. While I haven't studied all the details of the various plans, I do support the concept of universal health care for all. I have felt strongly about this issue since 1972 when I broke into the library profession as a reference librarian at an urban library outside of Chicago.

There were times back then when I wished I had taken a couple of med school courses to supplement my library education. There were many things they didn't tell me in Reference 101, namely that I would serve as the public's tax accountant, legal counsel, investment advisor-and physician.

"Sir," an elderly patron addressed me. "I have three soft lumps on my back. They are not painful but my wife thinks they are unsightly. What do you think they are?" My response was guarded. Instead of saying, "Step back into the reference office and take your shirt off. I'll be back in a moment with Gray's Anatomy," I guided him to the medical reference section. When he persisted in seeking a diagnosis from me, I told him that I didn't have malpractice insurance.

Why do so many people prefer the advice of a reference librarian to the diagnosis of a physician? Do reference librarians have a better bedside manner? No, the answer always comes down to money.

Many of our users simply couldn't afford professional medical care, and so Gray's Anatomy, the Merck Manual, Dorland's Illustrated Medical Dictionary, and the Physicians' Desk Reference were always worn and dog-eared. I wonder how many of those "patients" survived diagnosing themselves.

Thirty-seven years later, I've come to understand another reason why a person might prefer the library's medical collection to a physician's appointment- embarrassment.Several months ago, I woke up with a wicked pain in a most embarrassing area of my body-my rear end. A five-inch vertical protuberance had suddenly erupted right in the middle of that very private place. I really didn't want to call the doctor's office before having some idea of what this wretchedly painful thing was. So I went to the library, but I couldn't find a picture of what I was dealing with in any of the medical books.

Then voilà, it hit me: The computer room beckoned. I typed in a few very private keywords and was deluged with photographs and videos. In the midst of this rather disgusting search, I found my ailment: a thrombosed external hemorrhoid. Further searching revealed something I really hadn't anticipated- painful testimonies from people who had suffered through the same agony and heartache.

When I got home, I made an appointment regarding a "proctological issue." My doctor took one look and instantly diagnosed a thrombosed external hemorrhoid, declaring, "Congratulations, this is the biggest one I've ever seen. We'll have to cut it off." Since I'd never had surgery before, I spent a great deal of time surfing "hemorrhoidectomies." Again, I found many personal testimonials and even joined a thrombosed external hemorrhoid chat group, which gave new meaning to the old library term . . . end user.