Queen Elizabeth Hospital Library Visit February 25th 2014

The visits so far have covered a great range of sectors and specialisms, and this one added the field of healthcare libraries to the list. We ventured east to Woolwich’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where the library is housed within an ‘Education Centre’ on the edge of the site. On arrival we were greeted by a very friendly team of four library staff, and given a tour and overview of the library’s holdings by Stephen, Electronic Resources Librarian.

As we learned, the library is part of a consortium of five libraries within what is now known as the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust, with a shared catalogue and an effective intra-library loan system, meaning they can divide their acquisitions and club together to subscribe to electronic resources. Although electronic journals have become popular, when it comes to books the majority of users still prefer to use the printed version, and for the most popular textbooks the library holds several copies. I was initially surprised by the relatively small size of the physical holdings in the library (around 6200 books), and the fact that they were in the process of disposing of a large amount of print journals to allow for more seating space. Stephen explained that not only have electronic journals become increasingly popular, but also that the older printed journals had become obsolete as medical knowledge has advanced – so much so that they couldn't even give them away!

By freeing up space, and some tactical positioning of shelving, the library staff are hoping to create a partially blocked off quiet study area towards the rear, and more space for general seating. The library is frequented by a mixture of users, including nurses, doctors, and medical students on placement, and Stephen explained that as well as those who need to carry out serious research for exams or actual medical cases, a lot of staff like to come to the library as a place to get away from the stress of the main hospital.   

After our tour we were handed over to Sian, the Deputy Library Services Manager and Nora, Library Assistant, for a useful and informative presentation on how they found themselves working in health librarianship, their roles in the library, and on the field in general. Sian’s role consists of a range of responsibilities, including running training courses, marketing and promotion, attending meetings and committees (such as the Clinical Librarians Group) and the day-to-day supervision of the library’s two Library Assistants. Nora’s role as one of the Library Assistants is also varied, including spending time on the front desk dealing with general enquiries, processing a large amount of inter-library loans, stock checking and other on-going projects, and she was just starting the certification process with CILIP, which offers a route into professional librarianship.

Sian outlined the skills she thought were essential in health librarianship, including adaptability, flexibility, IT skills, and communication skills, but reassuringly advised that prior medical expertise was not an essential prerequisite for the job – as with most specialist library roles this is something you can pick up as you go along. Despite continuing uncertainty in terms of funding and restructuring within the NHS, and the function of libraries within it, I got the impression that working in a hospital library is a highly rewarding and varied career choice. It was clear that you are given genuine opportunities to make a positive impact in the treatment and care of hospital patients, as well as more broadly assisting with medical professionals’ research and career development. As a practical demonstration of this Sian gave us the chance to test out some of the electronic resources used by the hospital staff, which she runs regular training sessions on to help users search more effectively and ensure they find the most up-to-date and valid research.

We had a go on several approved databases, including NICE Evidence Search and Trip, attempting to find answers to questions such as: “is cranberry juice an effective treatment for bladder infections?” It was interesting, and actually quite fun, to put ourselves in the position of a healthcare library user, and Sian really highlighted the important role librarians in all fields can play as educators in a world where people are increasingly using a range of online resources for their research. Hospital library staff may not be directly saving lives like the medical professionals they work with, but it’s as close as a librarian can get - and that sounds pretty good to me!

Thank you very much to Sian, Stephen, Nora, and Keith.