Health libraries’ vital role in supporting the COVID response

To mark World Book Day on Thursday 4 March, Rob Polson and Chris O’Malley highlight the contribution the Highland Health Sciences Library is making to the COVID-19 response.

The Highland Health Sciences Library is one of thirteen libraries spread across University of the Highlands and Islands partnership. The facility is based in the Centre for Health Science in the grounds of Raigmore Hospital, although staff have been delivering services remotely in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As well as serving university students and staff, the library, along with Lorn and Islands Hospital Information Service and Library in Oban, also provides support to NHS Highland health and social care staff. Our work aims to ensure that students and health care staff have access to up to date evidence-based information so they can provide patients with high quality health care. Generations of student nurses, doctors and allied health professionals have passed through and used the service to become managers and experts in their field.

Library staff have made many contributions to consumer health information, both at home and abroad over the years. We have helped to set up and support the specialist Scottish Toxoplasmosis and Lyme Disease laboratories in Raigmore and, further afield, we have contributed to the development of mental health services in Ghana and Zambia and helped with child health in Amazonia.

Historically, the Highlands is the home of some significant and noteworthy health innovations. The Highlands and Islands Medical Service, the model for the current UK NHS service, originated in the area. With the development of accessible electronic resources in the 1990s, the Highland Health Sciences Library was one of the main proposers of an electronic repository of books, articles and professional development materials – making them accessible 24/7, irrespective of staff location. This proposal initially became the NHS Scotland eLibrary and has since developed into the main clinical and educational knowledge support tool for the NHS in Scotland.

In essence, we are here to link people with evidence, so they can conduct evidence-based education, research and practice in health sciences. Traditional forms of this work involve developing collections of resources like books on shelves and, more recently, electronic journals, eBooks and other online resources. We also teach staff and students how to find evidence for themselves and we collate material for those who are short on time, those working on high quality academic research and practice, and those providing specific clinical care.

During COVID-19, the library has been working closely with NHS Highland’s public health department. We provide information to help the department plan for dealing with the pandemic. In the early stages of the pandemic, health services had to act quickly and didn’t really know what was going to happen. We set up alerts to help model how the virus would develop in the area and how best to deal with possible scenarios. Alerts were also set up to deal with specific problems resulting from treatments, for example, how to support the psychological needs of people leaving intensive care. We continue to set up alerts as things progress, including information on how best to deal with the long COVID legacy. Ongoing horizon scanning of how the virus is developing also allows the department to plan for contingencies, such as the problem of vaccine hesitancy – the reasons behind refusing vaccination.


Image: WHO/ Sam Bradd


Feedback from this work indicates that the library service is seen as frontline. It allows public health professionals to focus on their decision making, with the library service providing condensed, best evidence in a manageable controlled flow – gifting time to staff and increasing the value of their work. In addition to this, the library has contributed to developing similar sets of resources for NHS Scotland and has fed into the COVID-19 work of the World Health Organisation.

In preparation for the next pandemic, this element of providing condensed best evidence in a manageable, controlled flow using artificial intelligence and machine learning is being looked at as a project in the university’s computing department.

Libraries play an important role in saving their users money and time. A study by the Highland Health Sciences Library showed that staff could save an average of six hours per query by using the service. This equates to a saving of £200 per query for their employer.

Stereotypes of what we do in the library, like a librarian as someone who stamps books in and out all day, are outmoded now. Our real role is supporting the wide information needs of our varied user groups across the university partnership and NHS Highland.

In this maelstrom of change, the goals, strategies and standards of academia and health sciences remain the structural underpinnings of the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ ‘why,’ and ‘how’ of what we do. The ‘where’ has changed for now in these COVID times, but we have adapted and continue to support the needs of those the service is designed to support.

Rob Polson and Chris O’Malley, Specialist Librarians, Highland Health Sciences Library

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