What does a solo NHS librarian do?

I feel really proud to be able to say that I work for the NHS. Although in my previous role at St George’s I did help provide some training and support for NHS staff, it wasn’t my primary focus. My current role is in a specialist cancer hospital supporting our NHS staff, but we are odd in that we also deliver accredited university modules at undergraduate and postgraduate level, so it is more of a hybrid HE/NHS role. I thought I might use this blog post to outline my responsibilities and what I do, as healthcare librarianship can be regarded as a specialist niche within the library profession and I want to demystify it a little.

General responsibilities

  • We are a tiny team of two – just myself and a library assistant. I spend at least half an hour a day supervising the library assistant and providing training where necessary when tasks have been delegated to them. This was a new responsibility for me as I hadn’t line managed anyone directly beforehand.
  • Answering enquiries! As we are such a small team I share equal responsibility for dealing with day-to-day tasks like circulation, phonecalls, etc – the bread-and-butter work of all libraries. Today I’ve unjammed a printer, found a journal article for a nurse, renewed some books, alongside my other responsibilities.
  • Ordering books and journals. I know this sounds very basic, but when I was at larger libraries I just instructed the acquisition department to get certain titles in, and it just happened as if by magic! I now have to liaise directly with suppliers and, more challengingly, NHS procurement and finance to ensure that the books and journals that we need are available. This can take up far more of my time than I would like.
  • Systems librarian (!?) – I had practically zero systems experience before this role and had to learn quickly! I initially found this one of the most challenging things to do. I look after our link resolver (NHS libraries use OCLC), our authentication system (OpenAthens, for now) and the backend of our EBSCO Discovery service. Our LMS is hosted by another organisation so that’s one system I don’t have to worry much about, luckily.
  • Interlibrary loans – as with book acquisitions, I used to just ask another member of staff nicely to order these for me, and it just happened. Now I liaise with other NHS libraries, local HE libraries, and, if needs must, the British Library to obtain these for our users.
  • Copyright officer – I ensure that we meet the requirements of our Copyright Licencing Agency Higher Education and NHS England licences, and advise lecturers on how they can best utilise copyright laws in their teaching.

HE responsibilities

  • I provide information skills training for students at the Royal Marsden School. We have 20 different modules across each academic year, with many of these running multiple times in the year so that we have over 40 groups of students to induct and provide information skills training for! One of the big challenges is the diversity of each student group as you can have, in a group of 20 students, 10 who have not studied for a decade or more, 5 who are recent graduates, and 5 who have already attended several of your information sessions. I try my best to produce unique info skills content for each module to minimise repetition and introduce variety into their learning.
  • Academic staff often come to me for support with finding learning resources for new modules, or when they are looking to revamp existing modules. I help to compile reading lists and also ensure that reading lists on our VLE are all linked to our catalogue.

NHS responsibilities

  • Literature searching – this service usually lies at the heart of most healthcare libraries. For the uninitiated, this is a highly technical, specialised way of searching established databases to find all the available published papers on a topic. A search looks abit like this. Librarians do these for clinical staff to save them time – it takes about 1-2 hours to do a good search, especially if I then review the results to highlight key papers.
  • Promoting the library is a huge challenge for all organisations, but perhaps especially in the NHS, where we often deal with a transient workforce who have very little time, and who are often scattered geographically.
  • Engaging with the wider NHS library community. There are a lot of national and regional shared resources and working groups, and it is a great community to be a part of as everyone is very helpful and proactive – I found it absolutely invaluable when I was first finding my feet. I attend meetings with other NHS librarians in London and the South East once every couple of months. There are national standards (LQAF) that we need to meet, and a strategic steer from Health Education England known as Knowledge for Healthcare.
  • I also provide 1-2-1 and small group training for NHS staff in literature searching and critical appraisal. This is currently on an ad hoc basis, and is something I’d definitely like to develop further in the future.

Part of the reason that I have written all of this down is that recently I have been feeling anxious about how well I am doing as a librarian. A year has gone by in my ‘new’ role and it can often feel like little progress has been made, although I know this isn’t true! There’s a lot that I wish we could do – I’d love to set up a current awareness service for NHS staff, do more to promote the library, and I’m behind on several projects – but when I write all my day-to-day responsibilities down it helps me to realise that I’m already doing rather a lot and perhaps it’s ok for us not to be a perfect library service… yet!

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