I visited a health library and didn’t die

I recently spent an enlightening two days learning all about health libraries and I am feeling uncharacteristically optimistic about the field, despite the fact that somewhere out there are libraries that co-exist with MORGUES. Oh library/zombie movie, you just write yourself.

Obviously, I’m a GT and have no actual experience as a health librarian so I wanted to do a bit of myth-busting for those of us who are secretly a little bit afraid of health libraries or completely in the dark about what goes in (insert general anaesthetic joke here.)

If you would like to find out more from real grown-ups, check out the Manchester NLPN’s interview with Jo Whitcombe, the CILIP Health Libraries Group and the NHS list of health libraries in the UK.

My experience comes from attending the LIHNN Clinical Librarian’s meeting, the LIHNN Trainers group meeting and job shadowing an Outreach Librarian at Salford Royal hospital (location of the aforementioned morgue.) I had a fantastic time at all three and would like to thank everyone involved for being so lovely and welcoming.  The camaraderie amongst librarians from what are competing hospitals and trusts actually warmed my frosty little heart. If you are super jealous that I got to and you didn’t, I think LIHNN is looking to invite more visitors to future meetings so get in touch!

But back to more important things – me (this blog is fast becoming the psychology of my childhood.)

My dad is/was a doctor and I have grown up with that vague medical background in which I was given doctors and nurses dressing-up clothes and toys, urged into science, watched squelchy medical procedure videos and had my dad dig various splinters/stones/Polly Pockets out of my feet with nothing more than a rusty penknife. All in all, this has not inclined me towards the medical profession in any way. Indeed, please refer to this beautiful Venn diagram of me and my previous hospital experiences (sponsored by clipart.)


Before I went to Salford Royal, I really knew nothing about health libraries at all and I had generally made it my life mission to avoid hospitals and oozing contagious people.

But as it turns out, much of the same things happen behind our academic library doors.

(And really, there is just as big of a risk of catching something horrendous from a drippy student as there is from a hospital, which is probably a cleaner work environment anyway.)

There are numerous similarities – the main three I have outlined below alongside three differences.

I know you are incredibly excited to scroll down and find out what these amazing points are but wait! It must be said that although there are loads of similarities, the differences are different. Like technically a goat is really similar to a cat but the goatiness of the differences are what matter overall.

Ok, go ahead (similarities first then differences, cos I forgot to do headings):


It didn’t even occur to me that there would be students – students are ours and belong in their natural habitat – so it was a bit of a surprise to hear them being discussed at the meetings. Then at my job shadow I learned just how many there are (well, I can’t remember exactly but bloody loads) and that a large part of the role is similar to that of an academic librarian; inductions, information literacy, teaching and all the niggly things like fines, renewals and missing books. As much as I grumble about them and am dreading being one again, students really do make the job worthwhile so it’s good to know the skills you have in HE can be transferred across.



The way I can make health libraries make sense in my head is to think of doctors (in their many roles) as academics rather than scary people who poke you or share half your DNA. In HE the service we provide for an academic and a student can be quite similar but there are more issues of power and responsibility in play. For example, I would feel more overwhelmed and nervous if a doctor/academic asked me for help than a student simply because they know more, are usually older than I am and are higher up the scale. Of course, most academics don’t spend their days elbow deep in someone’s guts (at least not at work) but I still think the comparison stands.



I spent most of the walk between the tram stop and the hospital trying to spot the sick people. It turns out that they aren’t just streaming out of all the buildings and collapsing in the car parks. In fact, I don’t think I even saw a single patient. More than anything, the hospital looks like a university. Just a hodgepodge of anonymous buildings named after old people, with the same sort of meeting rooms, cafes and signage. Might I even say it was a bit boring – which is a good thing of course – but I was expecting a bit more ER type drama.  When will I learn that TV dramas are not accurate depictions of real adult life?  I was also stupidly surprised that the library looked like a library (duh) with a quiet zone, study spaces, an IT room and even an impressive fiction section. There were even students IN THE LIBRARY, which just goes to show how I can’t help but stick even the most obvious and mundane things in this blog.


Literature searches

These seem to be a common theme amongst outreach and clinical librarians and feel almost wrong to me. I’m so used to helping students only up to a certain point, with the idea that I absolutely must not do their work for them no matter how tempting it is to get out my red pen. So when I learnt that doctors, nurses and even students can email or fill in a form requesting a list of articles and other materials on medical topics, I pretty much had a heart attack right then and there (luckily I was in a hospital…). This is one of the biggest differences for me and something that actually sounds quite interesting and satisfying – and having seen one in action, I definitely feel less nervous about being able to do one myself.


Subject matter

Literature searches are one thing, but the language involved is quite daunting. I have two literature based degrees and obviously never thought I would have to use medical knowledge beyond buying paracetamol and feeling my lumpy scalp to convince myself of a fatal  brain tumour (nope, that’s called a skull Jennifer). Doing these literature searches does involve deciphering medical terms and there seems to be a lot of jargon but when I started out here in an education and social care library I didn’t know anything about those subjects either, so I think it’s a case of learning as you go along. You can’t be a health librarian and totally avoid medical language but you aren’t expected to be an expert either. Phew.



In general it seems fair to say that health librarians work in smaller teams and so their responsibilities are more varied. There is no subject librarian equivalent (as I naively thought)and you are expected to dig into all sorts of things that in HE there would probably be a whole team dedicated to. For example, you might have to create your own slides for teaching, help build your website, process ILLS, run inductions, attend meetings and do stock counts. This freedom sounded really exciting but I think you would need to be quite a self-motivated worker (I would probably end up sitting in the office eating jaffa cakes all day and reading Wikipedia entries about lemurs).

After this brief but exciting glimpse into health libraries, I feel reassured that no body parts that belong on the inside are going to touch my outsides and that the roles out there are varied, interesting, inspiring and really very cool. Go health librarians woo!