An idiot’s journey through systems/e-resources librarianship

This has been a very tough week for me. I mentioned in my last post how I had practically zero systems or e-resources experience prior to this role, and this week has been all about firefighting in my various library systems! Whilst it was very unpleasant, I have also learnt a lot and I thought I would share my learning here.

1. Setting up a new system? Write everything down

I am currently transitioning all of our students at the Royal Marsden School over to Shibboleth authentication from OpenAthens. This is not a fun process. Shibboleth needs to be configured and tested for all of our e-resources (that’s 7 e-book platforms, 1 discovery service/database provider, and 9 journal platforms); I have also tried to set up WAYFless URLs to all of these different systems to improve user experience.


I have been working on this since early September, alongside all of my other day-to-day jobs! It was really easy to lose track of where I was with the process for each resource; eventually I got my act together and just recorded absolutely everything (email exchanges and all, it’s amazing how quickly they get lost in Outlook) in a Word document divided up using headings. I’m sure there is a fancier way of doing this but it was quick and easy and worked for me.

Also, if/when I leave, then all my documentation is there for my successor to follow up on.

2. Don’t be afraid to be a pain

One of the things I have discovered about systems librarianship (at least at my level) is that it is mostly about communicating with other people, rather than doing any coding or hugely technical stuff. When I have an issue I send off a communication to the relevant customer services contact. This week I’ve been in touch with Springer, Ovid, 123library, Cambridge Core, EBSCO, Myilibrary, and RCNi because various things have not been working (I did say it was a bad week! Normally I go weeks without an issue). Of these 7 suppliers, 3 are still causing me problems several days on…

Some companies are better at responding than others. I used to be really polite and wait for ages to get a response; now I have learned that it’s ok to be more firm and chase things up. For example, I had an instance this week where the support contact said ‘sorry, that’s the best we can do’ and I sent quite a strongly worded (for me!) reply insisting on a better solution and stating that my other suppliers had managed to accommodate my request. And it worked!! They did eventually provide me with the OpenURL compliant WAYFless URL I needed. If I hadn’t been more insistent, it wouldn’t have happened.

3. Service providers are poor at communication. Be incredibly specific.

Here is a scenario from earlier this week:

  1. YiWen to Journal Provider: Hello! I am encountering an error message when I try to login to your journals using Shibboleth. Here is a screenshot of the error message. Please can you investigate?
  2. Journal Provider to YiWen, minutes later: You are not logging in the correct way. Please follow these steps.
  3. YiWen to Journal Provider: Yes! I did follow those steps! Those are exactly the steps that I followed to produce the error message!
  4. Journal Provider to YiWen: Oh yeah, I’ve just tested, you’re right, there’s a problem. I’ll get back to you.

Invariably, service providers will assume that YOU are the problem, not their system. The burden of proof is on the complainant! It is best, in your very first email, to provide an incredibly detailed, step-by-step outline of the issue, with screenshots of every single step taken. This would have saved me lots of swearing and frustration later on.


Anyway, there we go. Those are some of the lessons that I’ve learned during one of the toughest weeks I’ve had, systems-wise. It has been quite cathartic writing it all out and if anyone else has to step into a systems-related role, I hope it helps them too.


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!