How have health librarians been responding to the Covid-19 pandemic?

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic over the past 18 months has highlighted the vital role of information and knowledge services in supporting health and social care, public health, and medicine.

Last month’s Annual CILIPS Conference included a presentation about #HealthLibrariansAddValue – a joint advocacy campaign between CILIPS and NHS Education for Scotland (NES) which aims to showcase the skills of health librarians and demonstrate the crucial role of health libraries.

Library and knowledge services in the health sector have faced increased pressures and a multitude of challenges throughout the pandemic as they have continued to develop and deliver vital services and resources to colleagues under unprecedented restrictions and changed working practices. With the demand for trustworthy and reliable health information higher than ever, it is clear that well-resourced, coordinated and accessible knowledge services are essential.

Supporting the frontline

Throughout the pandemic, the work of health librarians has been vital in supporting frontline workers including doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and social workers. Hospital library services have been directly involved in medical decision-making, providing evidence and resources to support patient care and the training of medical staff. As the information needs of the medical workforce have changed through the course of the pandemic, health libraries have had to be fast and flexible to provide time sensitive and urgent information to those on the frontline.

A project undertaken by the NHS Borders Library Service saw the creation of a new outreach service for local GPs, which involved the delivery of targeted current awareness bulletins, resource lists, and Covid-19 research updates, all of which directly informed the provision of primary patient care and helped to keep GPs up to date on emerging knowledge about the coronavirus.

Health Education England’s (HEE) Library and Knowledge team adapted their services to meet changing workplace needs, ensuring 24/7 access to digital knowledge resources, gathering evidence on how to keep staff safe while working, and developing training programmes to support virtual working practices for healthcare staff.

Supporting decision-making across sectors

Health librarians have played a major role in informing the UK’s pandemic response at a national level, aiding public health decision-making and facilitating partnership working across sectors.

Librarians from Public Health Scotland’s (PHS) knowledge services have worked closely with PHS colleagues to coordinate Scotland’s response to the pandemic. Their work included the creation of daily Covid-19 updates for PHS’ guidance teams, distributing the latest and most relevant research on key topics, and adapting these updates in line with PHS’ changing priorities (for example as their focus shifted from virus transmission to vaccine efficacy). Librarians at PHS have also been involved in creating evidence summaries to support specific Covid-19 research projects, such as an investigation into the relationship between Covid-19 and vitamin D. The evidence gathered by knowledge services helped PHS to formulate their response on the issue and make national recommendations relating to vitamin D intake.

On 12 July 2021, PHS launched their Covid-19 research repository, which is managed and maintained by the library team and collects, preserves, and provides access to Scottish Covid-19 research. This project aims to support policymakers, researchers, and the public by bringing together Scotland’s Covid-19 research in one place and making it easily accessible for all who need it. It is also aimed at reducing duplication of effort, which health librarians had recognised as a concern during the pandemic.

Similarly, Public Health England (PHE)’s library aimed to tackle the duplication of effort across England by creating their ‘Finding the evidence: Coronavirus’ page which gathers emerging key research and evidence related to Covid-19 and makes it accessible in one place. Many resources on the site are freely available and include a wide range of resources including training materials, and search and fact checking guidance.

Health libraries have also been informing decision-making across the social care and third sectors, with NES librarians facilitating digital access to research and evidence via the Knowledge Network and Social Services Knowledge Scotland (SSKS), and providing training and webinars to help users make the most of such services. NES librarians have been involved in partnership working with organisations such as the Care Inspectorate, SCVO, and Alliance.

Keeping the public informed

A key challenge for health librarians during the pandemic has been in dealing with the information overload and spread of harmful misinformation around Covid-19.

Library and information professionals have had a key role to play in providing trustworthy information to patients and the public, helping people to make informed choices about their health and wellbeing. As previously mentioned, librarians have helped agencies like PHS to deliver clear, meaningful, and authoritative guidance to the public, as well as making up-to-date and reliable Covid-19 research centralised and widely accessible to the public.

The World Health Organization (WHO) emphasises the importance of health literacy in enabling  populations to “play an active role in improving their own health, engage successfully with community action for health, and push governments to meet their responsibilities in addressing health and health equity”. Health librarians have been at the forefront of efforts to promote and improve health literacy during the pandemic.

NES’ knowledge services have been delivering training and webinars to health and social care staff on how to improve people’s health literacy, and health librarians working with HEE have created targeted Covid-19 resources for specific groups such as older people and children and young people.

Final thoughts

Clearly, the work of health librarians has been crucial to the UK’s pandemic response and recovery so far, and advocacy campaigns like #HealthLibrariansAddValue are central to highlighting this important work and demonstrating its impact.

Looking forward, it is clear that innovative and high-quality knowledge services will be essential in a post-pandemic world as they continue to aid recovery, promote health literacy and support the health and social care workforce. As set out in HEE’s Knowledge for Healthcare framework, investment is required at a national and local level to build expertise and support the digital knowledge infrastructure which will be required.


Further reading: more on health from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Introducing the Idox Information Service … supporting evidence use for over 40 years

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office in Glasgow

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office in Glasgow

As a team who work every day to supply evidence and good practice to our clients in the public sector and consultancies, it would be easy to feel a bit down about the ease with which the idea of a post-truth world has taken grip.

In fact however, it’s heartening that so many organisations continue to recognise the value that our service brings. Not only does it offer a continuing professional development resource for staff, it also acts as a channel for knowledge sharing between organisations – helping them when they have to review services, look for efficiencies, or transform what they do in light of changing government policy or priorities.

We know that much of what we do can remain hidden, even to our own members. So let’s go under the bonnet of our unique service …

Who we are

The Idox Information Service is a membership library service, which was established over forty years ago – originally under the name of the Planning Exchange. At the outset, the emphasis was on the provision of resources to support professionals working in planning and the built environment in Scotland, but over the years we’ve expanded our subject coverage to cover the whole spectrum of public sector information, and across the UK.

Our members include policy makers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. They work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Our work

Our team is made up of a mix of researchers, public policy specialists and qualified librarians, along with support staff. They have professional memberships, including chartered membership of CILIP and the Social Research Association. This picture shows the typical range of activities in a year:

2014 statsPublic policy is an ever-evolving subject and so current awareness services are a big part of what we do. Members can set up their own subject alerts on anything that interests them, and we also have a set of weekly and fortnightly updates on common topics. Last year we added three new current awareness updates on Devolution, Smart Cities and of course, Brexit!

UK grey literature is a particular strength of our collection. We spend a lot of time sourcing documents such as technical reports from government agencies, and research reports produced by think tanks, university departments, charities and consultancies which are often overlooked by other databases. Recent research has highlighted the value of grey literature for public policy and practice.

We also write our own research briefings for members on different topics, with more detailed analysis of research and policy developments, and including case studies and good practice. Some of these briefings are publicly available on our publications page.

The interest from members in using our Ask a Researcher service has been increasing, due to the time pressures and other challenges that people face in sourcing and reviewing information. An example looking at the links between employee wellbeing and productivity is on our website. Members regularly comment on the usefulness of the results, and it’s satisfying to be able to make a direct contribution to their work in this way.

Keeping it personal

While our online database allows our members to search for and access resources themselves, there is a strong personal element to our work.

Our members know that we’re always available at the end of the phone or via email to provide them with dedicated support when they need it. It’s important to us that we provide a quality service which keeps pace with the changing needs and expectations of a varied membership base.

Hopefully, this article has provided some insight into the way that the Knowledge Exchange supports staff and organisations across a variety of fields. More information about the service can be found here.


In 2015, the Idox Information Service was recognised as a key organisation supporting evidence use in government and the public sector. It was named by NESTA / Alliance for Useful Evidence / Social Innovation Partnership in their mapping of the UK evidence ecosystem.

We also contribute data to the Social Policy and Practice database, which focuses on health and social care evidence, and is a resource recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Volunteers in libraries: an alternative to closures, or a risk to the professionals?

Manchester Central Library. (Photograph: James Carson)

Manchester Central Library. (Photograph: James Carson)

By James Carson

Anyone doubting the capacity of libraries to stir up strong feelings need look no further than the debate concerning volunteers in public libraries. In 2011, when the leader of Oxfordshire County Council called for increases in the use of volunteers in public libraries, the author Philip Pullman was quick to respond:

‘Does he think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea?’

Volunteers in a changing library landscape

The use of volunteers in libraries is not new. But the nature of volunteering in libraries is changing, largely due to increasing budgetary pressures on local authorities. Since 2010, reductions in the grants given by central government to local authorities have forced many councils to review their services, and some have decided to close one or more public libraries in their area.

Some commentators have argued that because fewer people are using them the closure of public libraries is no great loss. It’s true that usage is down on previous years: a 2012 report by the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Committee observed that footfall and borrowing figures in libraries have fallen steadily in England since the 1990s.

But the committee also noted that many libraries have adapted to changing needs, providing other important, but hard-to-measure benefits to communities, such as literacy campaigns in areas of social deprivation and free internet access for unemployed and socially excluded people.

The emergence of community libraries

As an alternative to library closures, a growing number of councils have responded to funding cuts by handing over library facilities to volunteers, enabling them to be run as ‘community libraries’.  Research conducted by the Arts Council of England in 2012 found that over 170 community libraries were in operation, representing approximately 5% of all public libraries in England. Many library authorities reported that they had plans for more community libraries in the next few years.

The Arts Council report also featured a number of case studies demonstrating the different models of community library, including those where a library has been handed over completely to the community, without any professional support, and those where there is continued access to the advice and support of professional librarians.

Professional responses

Unison, the trade union which represents many professional librarians in the UK, estimates that the number of volunteers in libraries increased by 69% between 2006/07 and 2010/11. Its policy is to acknowledge that volunteers have a role to play, but that they should not be used to cut costs, or as replacements for employed, paid, trained staff in the public library services. CILIP, the professional body for the library and information sector, has also come out against the replacement of paid professional and support roles with either volunteers or untrained administrative posts.

A postcode lottery of library services?

In 2013, a report, from the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) warned that the diversity and range of demands placed on volunteers risks diluting the professionalism of the library service and placing an unsustainable burden on volunteers themselves.

“Volunteers have an important role to play yet there is a danger they will reach saturation point and in relying on volunteers to deliver day to day services, we risk losing sight of the added value that volunteers can bring to the service more widely, for example through assisting with reading schemes.”

The NFWI report made a number of recommendations, including adequate training for volunteers, and a debate on how community-managed libraries will fit into the overall library service.

Community libraries are becoming a more common part of the local landscape, and many are providing services that would otherwise have disappeared due to library closures. But, as the NFWI report warned, there are risks associated with the increasing fragmentation of library services:

“…the proliferation of these models could lead to a ‘postcode lottery’ of library services with the creation of a two-tiered system of library provision that undermines the benefits of skilled and trained library staff and under-estimates the role that they play in both delivering an effective public service and supporting communities.”


 

The Knowledge Exchange is the research and intelligence arm of Idox. Our research team includes qualified information professionals, and subscribers to our Idox Information Service can access their expertise.

Read more about our service in our blog for National Libraries Day:

To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Why UK-sourced evidence matters … and why it is so often ignored

By Morwen Johnson

If you follow our blog, you’ll know that we care passionately about promoting the uptake of evidence and research by policymakers and practitioners. It’s easy to be complacent and assume that when public money is at stake, decisions are made on the basis of evaluations and reviews. Unfortunately, this is still not always the case.

The current evidence-based policy agenda in the UK encompasses initiatives such as the What Works network, the Local Government Knowledge Navigators and independent organisations such as the Alliance for Useful Evidence. They are working on fostering demand for evidence, as well as linking up academics with those in the public sector to ensure that the research community is responsive to the needs of those making decisions and designing/delivering services.

A recent article in Health Information and Libraries Journal highlights another challenge in evidence-based policy however. A mapping exercise has found that literature reviews often ignore specialist databases, in favour of the large, well-known databases produced by major commercial publishers. Within the health and social care field (the focus of the article), literature reviews tend to use databases such as Medline, Embase and Cinahl – and overlook independent UK-produced databases, even when they are more relevant to the research question.

Why does it matter?

Research has shown that how (and why) databases are chosen for literature searching can “dramatically influence the research upon which reviews, and, in particular, systematic review, rely upon to create their evidence base”.

To generate useful evidence for the UK context (relating to UK policy issues or populations), researchers need to understand the most appropriate database to search – but unfortunately our own experience of looking at the detail of methodologies in evidence reviews, suggests that in many cases the only databases searched are those produced by American or international publishers.

Grey literature is a valuable source in evidence reviews – and again this is often overlooked in the major databases which tend to focus only on peer-reviewed journal content. A recent Australian report ‘Where is the evidence?‘ argued that grey literature is a key part of the evidence base and is valuable for public policy, because it addresses the perspectives of different stakeholder groups, tracks changes in policy and implementation, and supports knowledge exchange between sectors (academic, government and third sector).

Another benefit of UK-produced databases is that they will make use of UK terminology in abstracts and keywords.

Social Policy and Practice – a unique resource

At this point I should declare a vested interest – The Knowledge Exchange is a member of a UK consortium which produces the Social Policy and Practice (SPP) database. The SPP database was created in 2005 after five UK organisations, each with a library focused on sharing knowledge in community health and social care, agreed to merge their individual content in order to make it available to the widest possible audience.

The current members of the SPP consortium – the National Children’s Bureau, the Idox Knowledge Exchange, the Centre for Policy on Ageing and the Social Care Institute for Excellence – have just been joined by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Inclusion of the NSPCC’s bibliographic data greatly enhances the coverage of child protection research in the database. SPP has been identified by NICE, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, as a key resource for those involved in research into health and social care.

We want the UK research community to understand what SPP offers, and to use it when undertaking literature reviews or evidence searches. This process of awareness raising should start with students – librarians in universities and the UK doctoral training centres have a key role in this as it ties in with the development of information literacy and critical appraisal skills. Ignoring specialist sources such as SPP risks introducing bias – at a time when initiatives are attempting to embed research and analytics in local government and the wider public sector.


Information on the coverage of Social Policy and Practice is available here and the distributor Ovid is offering a free 30-day trial.

Celebrating a different kind of library: the Idox Information Service

Number 95

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office, an art deco building in Glasgow

by Laura Dobie

It’s National Libraries Day this Saturday, and events are being held up and down the country to celebrate libraries and their contribution to communities. When people think of libraries, it tends to be public libraries which spring to mind and rows of bookshelves. However, the library sector is diverse.  Many librarians and information professionals work in different types of organisations, with different kinds of service users.

With libraries taking centre stage over the course of this weekend, we wanted to showcase our own specialist library service and the skills of our library staff.

Who we are

The Idox Information Service is a membership library service, which was established over thirty years ago under its earlier name of the Planning Exchange. At the outset the emphasis was on the provision of resources to support professionals working in planning and the built environment, but we’ve expanded our subject coverage over the years to cover the whole spectrum of public sector information.

Our members include policy makers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. They work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Our work

Our research officers are all qualified librarians, and many are chartered members of CILIP. This picture shows the range of activities last year:

2014 statsGrey literature is a particular strength of our collection. We spend a lot of time sourcing documents such as technical reports from government agencies, and research reports produced by think tanks, university departments, charities and consultancies which are often overlooked by other databases. Recent research has highlighted the value of grey literature for public policy and practice.

Although we may work in a specialist sector, many of our activities will be familiar from other libraries. We do our own abstracting and cataloguing, and current awareness services are a big part of what we do.

We also write our own research briefings for members on different topics, with more detailed analysis of research and policy developments, and including case studies and good practice. Some of these briefings are publicly available on our publications page.

The interest from members in using our Ask a Researcher service has been increasing, due to the time pressures and other challenges that people face in sourcing and reviewing information. A recent example looking at the links between employee wellbeing and productivity is on our website. Members regularly comment on the usefulness of the results, and it’s satisfying to be able to make a direct contribution to their work in this way.

Keeping it personal

While there has been an increasing trend towards self-service in libraries, and our online database allows our members to search for and access resources themselves, there is a strong personal element to our work.

Our members know that we’re always available at the end of the phone or via email to provide them with dedicated support when they need it. It’s important to us that we provide a quality service which keeps pace with the changing needs and expectations of a varied membership base.

Hopefully this article has provided some insight into a different kind of library, and library and information work, and the way in which we support professionals across a variety of fields. More information about the service can be found here.


Laura Dobie is a Research Officer at the Idox Information Service and a chartered librarian. She writes regular blog articles and research briefings for the service, and tweets for @IdoxInfoService

Putting research at the heart of UK public policy

word cloud of search terms
by Alex Addyman and James Carson

At the heart of The Knowledge Exchange is a comprehensive database of hundreds of thousands of articles, research reports, and policy documents covering 40 years of UK public policy. The database is known as the Idox Information service and users include: Continue reading