Terry Ahmed—Opening the Gates

In our week of focusing on reference librarians at NLM, today we’re featuring Terry Ahmed. Since 2010, Ahmed has been head of Reference and Web Services.

Head shot of Terry Ahmed

Terry Ahmed

When Terry Ahmed was growing up, his father was a security guard at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library. “There were days when he would just plop me down in the children’s room of the library,” says Ahmed. “This was where I learned to love the library.”

When Ahmed was old enough to work, his father put in a good word for him, and Ahmed got a job connecting calls on the switchboard, doing key sorting, shelving, working in the microfilm department, and helping at the library’s desks: circulation, children’s, and his favorite—science and technology.

Despite loving the library, Ahmed never thought about a career as a librarian. With a major in food service management, he figured he’d be managing a restaurant.

Like a lot of young people, he quickly discovered he had a degree in something he didn’t like doing.

So Ahmed shelved the idea of working in food service and returned to work he loved.

In Buffalo, Ahmed worked at public, academic and pharmaceutical libraries, one of which offered to pay his tuition to library school. “I was very grateful and took full advantage of the offer,” he said. But after he graduated, the library where he worked couldn’t hire him. The library was too small for two full-time librarians.

When Ahmed couldn’t land a permanent position, he moved to the Washington, DC area to set up a library within a pharmaceutical company. His work involved frequent trips to NLM where he was impressed with the collection and the staff.

He used NLM as a model for his library’s collection and borrowed books through NLM’s interlibrary loans. He also found any excuse to visit.

In 1999, when he saw a job posted for a contractor position as a reference librarian at NLM, Ahmed was ready. Three years later, he was hired full-time as a federal employee.

Since 2010, Ahmed has been head of Reference and Web Services. The 23 professionals in his department provide leadership and support in web content management for the Library and provide customer services for many key products. They are also responsible for MedlinePlus®, the Library’s consumer health website, and manage the NIHSeniorHealth website in partnership with the National Institute of Aging and other NIH Institutes.

“Our staff have a diverse set of skills,” said Ahmed. “If I think of my staff as musicians, the reference librarians are like pop musicians because they have to relate to so many people. The MedlinePlus staff are like classical musicians because they have to be so precise managing MedlinePlus and curating content from NIH and other health organizations. And the web team are like jazz musicians because they have to be able to improvise,” explained Ahmed.

He regularly meets with managers and teams throughout his division. “I want to make sure every unit has the support they need,” he said.

He admits he does have a bit of a soft spot for the reference librarians, since he was one.

“They’re the voice of the Library to the public,” said Ahmed. “When people write in or call, we respond and help. Staff constantly listen to what the users say through their words, social media, surveys, and analytics—and then make changes, whether it’s adding content to MedlinePlus or improving search functions.”

Currently, his section is working on better web self-service to make information faster to find online.

“It’s all about convenience and speed,” says Ahmed. “Traditionally, we’ve been the gatekeepers of information. Now, we’ve opened the gates and we’re pushing the information outward, making it easier for people to locate without human intervention.”

Tomorrow, we’re featuring a librarian with the outlook of a detective. On Thursday, we’re featuring a woman who only began considering a career as a medical librarian after a medical tragedy hit home. Finally, on Friday, we’ll tell you about some of the more unusual requests that reference librarians here have received –and how they were answered.

2 thoughts on “Terry Ahmed—Opening the Gates

  1. I’m a retired Medical Librarian whose story mirrors yours in some respects but I grew up in the DC area. I answered a blind classified ad in the Washington Post many years ago and it ended up as a chance to work for the Publications Library at the National Geographic Society. I was a paraprofessional and worked in all the departments while I was there. I answered the ad because I was allergic to tobacco smoke and needed to work somewhere that was “smoke free.” I couldn’t find work in my undergraduate major of Spanish (back in the 1970s). I ended up loving the Nat. Geo .main library so much that they paid a part of my tuition for my MLS and I worked at CUA in their Chemistry Dept. and the University paid the rest of my tuition. Then I called a friend across the street at the VA Medical Center and was hired there. During my job at the National Geographic, my work required that I go to the Library of Congress regularly. It was beyond wonderful and while working on my master’s degree at the CUA, I had to make regular visits to the NLM. I loved it, too. I used to joke that it was destiny that I would become a Librarian because I was “born” in a library. My large bedroom, as a child, housed my uncle’s “collection” of thousands of books on every subject imaginable. I had my own reference library right there. See, behind every Librarian that I know, there is a story. Thanks for sharing yours. Also, I love the metaphor of thinking of your staff as musicians.

  2. Thank you for sharing your background. We, too, loved Terry Ahmed’s metaphor about his staff as musicians. This month, NLM in Focus will be featuring “Rock Star Medical Librarians.”

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