Visit to the Royal College of Surgeons Library

On an unseasonably warm March afternoon, a group of us took a visit to the Royal College of Surgeons Library, home to one of our fellow GTs, Amy Holvey. Overlooking Lincoln's Inn Fields, the college sits amongst a horde of other notable institutions including The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn, Cancer Research UK, and Sir John Soane’s Museum. RCS is an independent professional body which serves surgeons – from trainees to consultants – who are members, fellows or affiliates of the college. As well as these user groups, the library also receives a lot of external visitors interested in their collections, particularly for family history research.

Before we get on to the work of the library, however, we began the afternoon (armed with Jaffa cakes and fizzy water) with two presentations from information professionals working in other areas of health information. First up: Emily Hopkins from Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust, on her journey from history student to chartered professional within the NHS. Starting as a weekend library assistant at Leeds University Health Library, Emily did her traineeship at Manchester University library, followed by an MA in librarianship at Sheffield University – a course which she was keen to advocate – where she also gained from the exchange of experiences of her classmates, many of whom had done traineeships in other libraries. Her first professional role was in the Department of Work & Pensions libraries and archives, where she took a temporary post (maternity cover can often be a good way to try out a role that you might be unsure about otherwise – and employers will often take a chance on a someone in this kind of role) working within the wider context of the communications team. Next she moved to NHS NorthWest, setting up an outreach library service. All of which lead up to her current role as a Library & Knowledge Manager at Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust. This position involves managing an array of information: from organising training sessions to improve staff awareness & CPD; to literature searches, putting together leaflets, & recommending self-help books for CBT; to project work such as PrEP research into HIV prevention, & screening tools for Greater Manchester-wide sexual health network.

Recommended links from Emily: CILIP’s Professional Knowledge and Skills Base

Next we heard from Elly O’Brien, an information specialist at Bazian, a company which provides evidence-based information to health organisations. Elly gave us an overview of what it is like working in health information: in particular the variety of sectors, subjects and roles available.

This could comprise: NHS (this could be anywhere within the structure of the NHS, which means the types of libraries and the work they do is wide-ranging, e.g. Mental health care libraries such as the Tavistock and Portman, Public health information services, Community Healthcare libraries, Primary care, Commissioning... see this system overview for an idea of the structure of the NHS as a whole); Government (e.g. The Ministry of Health Library); Universities (e.g. Leeds University Health Sciences Library, Imperial College Library); Charity/independent (e.g. Marie Curie Cancer Care Library & Information Services); Private/for profit (e.g. Bazian).

The subject of your work as in information professional working in health could cover primary care, public health, and mental health, amongst others.

You could work as a more traditional Library/knowledge manager; a Liaison librarian (usually in an academic health library); a Clinical librarian (working with clinical staff in a hospital library); or an Information/research officer/specialist (usually in the charity sector, often embedded within a comms team).

Recommended links for support within the professional community:

We also got to chat to Emily and Elly, and asked them whether it was necessary, or preferred for information staff to have a health/medical/sciences background. Both assured us – as we have been told about working in law libraries – that this was not the case. Both of them studied humanities subjects as their first degrees, and agreed that the information retrieval skills that they developed were central to accessing medical information & that picking up and retaining medical terminology was something that came with the job rather than a precursor to it. We also discussed whether bureaucracy and cuts had had an effect on their careers. Emily very diplomatically told us that this was just something that you learnt to live with working in the NHS. The dissolution of PCTs, for example, led to shifts in teams rather than blanket job losses, but that the effect was felt throughout the field. On the whole though, it was felt that the information sector coped well with flux and that it was still a vital component of the health service because of that.

And now, at last, on the RCS itself. We were shown around by Tom Bishop, head of library and surgical information services, who gave us an outline of the library services. The aims of the library are to provide an environment for information access, to anticipate the information needs of a very busy user base, to work in partnership with other health organisations. Formerly joined with the archives (which are now integrated with the Hunterian Museum, although they still sit together in the same office!), the library’s collections are specifically surgical, encompassing branches of anatomy, pathology and physiology. The scope in content ranges from manuscripts to born digital, with 50,000 books, 2,000 periodical runs, 30,000 tracts and pamphlets, all housed on 4.7 km of shelving. As well as supporting trainee and junior doctors in the beginning of their careers, when information needs are at a premium, they also work with established surgeons going through revalidation and recertification. As we toured the library it was noticeably quiet – a peculiarity of RCS, as most of their users are busy at work. This means that a lot more material has to be made available online, hence their subscription to a multitude of Athens-protected online resources.

The Charles Barry designed reading room (circa 1830) – which houses older print journal such as The Lancet (n.b. as I finally discovered, a lancet is an  instrument used to extract small amounts of blood for testing, a kind of needle or scalpel), and where readers consult historical materials on lovely but creaky old furniture – sits in stark contrast to the Lumley Studies centre, a 1990s learning centre designed room, which sees a different type of user to the reading room, reflective of its materials – here the short loans collection and current print journals such as the BMJ amongst others. As in the Wellcome Library, the Barnard classification scheme is used here (originally a veterinary system), and National Library of Medicine subject headings for cataloguing. In a proactive approach to engaging with their (often remote) users, a lot of value added work is done by library staff, including current awareness bulletins on the website, and The Lives of the Fellows, a resource which is of particular interest to genealogists, and as such is available to on the library website to help develop public engagement. At the end of the afternoon we had the chance to look at some amazing items from the library’s special collections and the archives, including William Clift’s Record of the Bodies of Murderers, delivered to the College for Dissection (1807-32), India proofs of engravings for a 1st edition of Gray’s Anatomy, and a sort of pop-up book of the brain and nervous system made by G.J. Witkowski. Some of these can be seen on a Copac blog post about the RCS’s combined library, archives and museum’s recent designation from the UK Arts Council – congratulations!


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