A Passion for Helping: Librarian Raises Awareness About Disabilities

Anna Schnitzer

Anna Schnitzer in front of pictures from the Paws with a Cause project. (Photo by Scott Galvin.)

Anna Schnitzer has what she calls her “dream job.” And a lot of people benefit because of it.

Schnitzer is the Disability Issues and Outreach Librarian at the University of Michigan Taubman Health Sciences Library. The title, she says, is “pretty darn rare.” Her efforts, colleagues say, are inspiring.

Thanks to a nomination submitted by her colleagues, Schnitzer recently received the 2012 Michael E. DeBakey Library Services Outreach Award from the Friends of the National Library of Medicine. The prestigious national prize recognizes a health sciences librarian for providing “outstanding services to rural or underserved communities.”

“Everyone should be valued for their abilities and the contributions they make,” Schnitzer says of her commitment to helping people with disabilities.

Schnitzer was born in Padua, Italy. She studied English literature in college in Maryland and then got her graduate degree in library science at the University of Michigan. She’s worked in libraries her whole life.

After 23 years as a reference librarian, her career shifted to outreach and disabilities issues because of a chance encounter. One day in 1999, while staffing the reference desk, Schnitzer helped a doctoral student working in the University of Michigan Health System’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. They began to chat. The student, a founding member of the UM Council for Disability Concerns, told Schnitzer about the group and invited her to come to the next meeting.  For Schnitzer, always curious, it was chance to explore a new area of interest that she knew little about.

After that initial meeting, Schnitzer resolved to help improve disability services on the sprawling campus, and thus was born the University of Michigan’s first Disability Issues and Outreach Librarian, and liaison to the disability community and underserved populations in Ann Arbor.

Her first bit of outreach was at the library itself “gently and subtly lobbying for changes that would provide greater accessibility. The first was a simple electric door push to open both the outside and inside library doors.” She next lobbied for the library to install Ergopods, workstations that people in wheelchairs can easily access. She asked a community group to provide sensitivity training to the library staff.  And she developed an online research guide to help people find crucial information on disability issues, such as breakthrough technologies and legislation.

“I’m the switchboard that can plug you into this or that resource and help you find people who are experts in their fields,” is how Schnitzer describes her work.

Barbara Redman, Anna Schnitzer, and Lucretia McClure

Bottom photo, Schnitzer is honored at the Friends of the National Library of Medicine annual awards gala, held September 11, 2012. From left to right Barbara Redman, PhD, FAAN, RN (FNLM), Anna Ercoli Schnitzer, AMLS and Lucretia McClure, MA (FNLM). (Photo by Michael Spencer.)

The people she’s helped have much more than that to say. In letters recommending Schnitzer for the DeBakey award, a disabled veteran wrote that he is now a highly-respected PhD student because of her mentoring and support. Others described her “idealism,” “enthusiasm” and “commitment,” displayed not only on the job but in volunteer work throughout the campus and the community.

“I’m not much good at having hobbies,” which is why Schnitzer says she has the time to do all she does. She continues on the Council for Disability Concerns. She helps organize an annual weeklong campus event to raise disability awareness. She chairs an awards committee recognizing contributions to disability rights. She oversees the campus “Paws with a Cause,” event, highlighting the role of therapy and personal-assistance dogs. She collects eyeglasses for the Lions Club to repair and distribute, and collects food for local food pantries. And that’s not all.

Colleagues say Schnitzer’s ability to build relationships is what’s helped build the library’s outreach program. Taubman Health Sciences Library is one of 16 designated Outreach Libraries for the Greater Midwest Region of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine.

Taubman’s director, Jane Blumenthal, MSLS, AHIP, says, “Anna has both passion for and commitment to the cause of bringing quality health information to people with disabilities,” adding they are an underserved population whose access to information and knowledge of resources is frequently overestimated.

Barbara Redman, PhD, president of the Board of Directors of the Friends of the National Library of Medicine, describes Schnitzer as “a remarkable librarian who provides outreach to people who are empowered with accurate health information.”

“Deep down, everybody has some sort of disability,” says Schnitzer. “The key is kindness and civility. Kindness does matter.”

By Thomas Conuel, NLM in Focus writer