Profile of a Health Librarian

SVHGLibraries logoAssistant Librarian in St. Vincent’s University Hospital

What path did you take to get to your current role?

Typified by the old joke – “If I wanted to get to there, I wouldn’t start out from here!” A B.A. in modern languages from UCC many years ago, years working in tourism and in the dairy industry, during which time I completed an evening course in DIT resulting in a Diploma on Management Law (DIT) and a BSc(Mgt) from TCD. Then a couple of years working with Dublin City Businesses topped off with evening and weekend Library Assistant work in both the Mercer and St. Luke’s Hospital Libraries. I felt – finally! – I’d found my niche and owe a debt of gratitude to both Gay Doyle (former Librarian in St. Luke’s) and to Beatrice Doran (former Chief Librarian, Mercer Library) for their assistance and encouragement. I returned to College and got my DLIS from UCD in 2004. My first professional Library role was on the TextAccess project based in TCD and sponsored by AHEAD (Association for Higher Education Access & Disabilities. I’ve been in my current role for the past 9 years.

Describe a typical day

I’m based in the University Hospital Library and during the academic year we generally have students as physical users while staff are mostly “virtual” from both the University and the Private Hospitals. Student needs are minimal really – an introductory talk and visit, book loans and – the bane of my life! – printing/photocopying. Staff needs are what occupy the largest part of my day. Clinical professionals are (almost) all obliged to engage in audits, research and CPD to maintain their professional status and hospital librarians assist with developing their search strategies, sourcing and provisionally appraising the literature and offering training or refresher sessions on the use of key clinical databases. A basic but comprehensive search will take between 3 and 8 hours so that can leave me with very little time for anything else. On a proactive basis, I send out a bi-monthly alerts bulletin to all staff as well as a number of targeted alerts by request. I’m also involved in literature searching for the NCCP and am on the HSLG Committee as CPD officer.

What traditional library skills are important to have within your role?

Searching (and finding!), training, informing, research, data management – these all feature on a regular basis. I’m team leader on a research project set up by the American MLA (Medical Library Association) and even though there’s never enough time to devote to it during working hours it’s an interesting hands-on way to develop my research skills.

What non-traditional library skills are important to have within your role?

It’s not entirely non-traditional but advocacy and promoting our services is constant and each year I try, with my colleagues, to come up with ways to maximise and promote the use of the Library, the Librarians and the resources we provide. In addition, there is more pressure to quantify your contribution and align it with the main goals of the hospital but it’s something that we now try to do on a regular basis. I have, with my former colleague Breda Bennett from our sister hospital, St. Michael’s, carried out an audit on the impact and value of the service and this provided good qualitative evidence but identifying quantitative evidence is more challenging.

SVHGLibrariesAre there any specific software packages or technologies you use on a regular basis within your role?

Mostly databases – subscribed and more frequently, open access, such as PubMed, PeDROTRIP Database etc. Also reference management software such as Zotero or EndNoteWeb. One thing to expect when working in a hospital library is that access to anything Google- or social media-related will most likely be blocked by the firewall as a failsafe to avoid any possible breaches of confidential patient files. The hospital has just subscribed to Moodle though, and I’m looking forward to getting constructive and creative with that.

What is the most rewarding part of your role?

It’s great to get feedback from staff saying that the help you provided is benefitting real live patients who are of course our ultimate end-users.

What is the most challenging part of your role?

This is a toss-up between staying up to date with my own CPD needs and trying to find time to get everything on the to-do list completed on time every time. IT issues are ever-present, firewall restrictions means that I spend a lot of time looking for workarounds because I can’t use the nice free web tool that would do the job most conveniently. Like most libraries, our staff numbers dropped during the lean years and it goes against the grain to say “no” to any request especially when we have worked so hard to raise our profile so we are still struggling to provide the same service with minus one-third of the Library staff. CPD is crucial but finding the time and the money to keep attend the necessary courses is a challenge. I did complete a MOOC but there’s a learning curve to these.

What are the career prospects within your area of librarianship?

Room for cautious optimism here. I’d suggest a read through S. Layla Heimlich (2014) New and emerging roles for Medical Librarians, Journal of Hospital Librarianship, 14:1, 24-32, DOI: 10.1080/15323269.2014.859995. Also, Aoife Lawton (2014) The Value of Health Libraries and Librarians to the Irish Health System, The Irish Medical Journal, 107:3, 90-92. I also see a major role for healthcare librarians in patient education and information and there are numerous examples of such initiatives taking place around the globe – from bibliotherapy and book prescriptions to personalised health management and public health promotion. So, there are opportunities but it will be up to the individual to carve a niche for themselves because librarians don’t generally spring to mind as a solution to these issues.

The other side to this is the upskilling required to meet the demands of these new roles. There is growing pressure to establish core skills and competencies for healthcare librarians to underpin an evolving profession. A good read on this would be Aoife Lawton & Jane Byrne (2014) A review of competencies needed for health librarians – a comparison of Irish and international practice, Health Information & Libraries Journal, 2014 Dec 30. doi: 10.1111/hir.12093. [Epub ahead of print].

Do you have any advice for people interested in pursuing a role in your genre of librarianship?

Health Librarians in particular work in an evidence-based world and actively promote the use of evidence in practice. At the same time, we are lacking in a strong body of evidence to underpin our own profession – my first piece of advice would be to get involved from the outset in research that will strengthen our own evidence base.

Secondly, the papers highlighted in Q9 present a range of roles and opportunities but in reality these roles rarely exist and we have to be prepared to advocate for their introduction. Think about what you could achieve in terms of added value, beneficial outcomes, cost savings and so on – these are most likely to gain a positive hearing.

Thirdly, while health librarians work in a range of different settings from Academic to Special libraries, there are many working as solo librarians and this can be a challenge. I strongly recommend getting involved in (or initiating) collaborative projects, library committees and groups, discussion lists as a means of keeping in touch.

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