Wednesday 17 July 2013

Warm welcome from the RCS Library

How many men have been injured opening bra straps? How many people currently have a cold at the moment? These aren't questions that can be answered by the good librarians at the Royal College of Surgeons. However they assist their 20,000+ members, medical professionals, researchers, patients and students with all sorts of queries from policy guidance, copyright and specific medical questions. I've been in there a few times as part of Hunterian museum exhibitions but this was a talk and guide for librarians, by librarians. Tom Bishop (Head of Library & Surgical Information Services) and his team gave an insight to the college, the library and what they do for their members.

We were given an overview of the library service, which is an independent, membership funded organisation, where the patient is centre of their concerns. The RCS oversees the surgical profession; from standardising examinations, supervising training, providing professional support, audit and evaluations, to advising government and giving a single voice to surgeons in England.

The role of the library was familiar to all of us; to select, organise and preserve knowledge and promote access to and understanding of the collections. As usual, information staff deal with a wide range of queries, anticipate further information needs and add value where possible as well as providing resources for training. They also work with other people such as Chill, a consortium of independent health libraries. The library is made up of 50,000 books (the earliest from 147), 57 incunabula, around 2000 periodical runs, 30,000 tracts and pamphlets, taking up 4.7km of shelving as well as 200 ejournals and 2800 boxes in archival storage. The focus is strictly surgical and they have the best collection of primary resources for John Hunter in the world. Their importance as a library/archive of note was recognised this year by the Arts Council which most importantly enables them to access funding from other avenues. They saw it as an opportunity to step back and evaluate their services and see things from a different view point. For example the standard they used, PAS197:2009 required them to think about other libraries as competition.

I was interested in hearing about the challenges they faced; similar problems are seen across the library world and we are dealing with them in different ways. As a membership library they are reliant on annual subscription fees for funding; a strong academic/educational function requires access to specialised medical information; highly sub sub specialised members are extremely demanding; geographically dispersed membership presents challenges of access and service provision. When your members are out doing their job, the library can feel physically underused, even if the services you offer are being appreciated. The library is also working within a landscape of upheaval as health care is facing massive challenges. Their members are being confronted with NHS league tables for surgeons, concentrating on new requirements for revalidation, as well as looking at the implications of The Francis Report and so on. There is too much to read, too many sources of info, and too many platforms.

Although we had a very interesting tour of the library areas where we touched on architecture, archives, the rare book room and exhibition space the two areas of work that I want to focus on are current awareness and the systems that they are working with.

Current Awareness

Steffi Sams *is* the library current awareness which was newly set up in April 2011 and has been chronically underfunded. Current awareness is the bread and butter of most special library services so to imagine not doing a round up of journals for colleagues is quite strange. However if I thought that lawyers were difficult, surgeons sound impossible. The reason that it took so long to set up was the large amount of consultation, discussion and tech issues that they faced. Surgeons felt that librarians wouldn't know what they would find interesting/relevant and that without some big names on the bulletin editorial committee, it would lack the necessary gravitas. So they set up pilot bulletins in two areas; cardiothoracic surgery and urology and embraced the learning curve of multiple platforms, specialised content, and sceptical user groups.

I have said many times that you cannot think like a librarian when compiling really useful stuff for lawyers. You have to really get into their heads and see how an article can be applied to problems and clients. So when she reiterated the necessity to think like a surgeon and have to think in a particular context, it struck a chord. She gave the example of a report on the issues around bleeding and anti-coagulants in surgery in over-80s. This would be of general importance to surgeons but a keyword mentality would not help find it.

For ease of use and the excellent statistical analysis, they use Campaign Master. This has RCS branding, however she says it's not really fit for purpose. Combining this with the internal Surgeons Information database, SIMS database of interests, they can send it out to specific people. The monthly bulletins include the editorial panel so readers can see the clinicians behind this. Each article has a citation, in house written summary and link to the full text. They also include links to help pages, cutting edge conference news, Anatomy TV material and adverts for other services such as image provision for talks etc.

They are planning to get more staff and set up bulletins for vascular surgery and plastic & reconstructive surgery. They are already prototyping a patient safety bulletin, all of which will run along the same principles. And like law, surgical specialisms have their own idiosyncrasies so each one will have different issues for the library staff. All signs suggest that the current bulletins have been very well received and the library hold 5 of the top 10 spots for activity for bulletin activity - something that the business development/education people are quite envious of. The successful current awareness service requires the compiler to know their stuff. They are looking at other possibilities - putting articles in context of medical arguments, looking at sponsorship opportunities to recoup some staff costs, spin offs and finally, the platform will need reviewing.

Library Systems

This part of librarianship is rather mysterious to me. I look after my LMS, College of Law Portal, my legal databases and they tend to look after themselves to be honest. However when your users are accessing the services remotely, suddenly library systems take on a massive importance. The various systems the RCS use are:

1. Opac - Sirsi/Dynex/Symphony Grew out of Unicorn. Based off site
2. SIMS Database. Feeds user system over night into the library database.
3. Adlib. The front end is SurgiCat. They are in process of upgrading to joint library and archive system... 
4. Plarr's lives of the fellows online. They are planning to take it off Orm(?!) and move to Adlib.
5. Access to Ovid/medline/pubmed must be maintained on the site 
6. Anatomy tv. For teaching, good copyright terms so that they can use images/stills from it
7. She lost me on the Athens stuff but there were good ways of administering passwords etc, and bad ways. Basically they have set it up so the user can do it all themselves as long as they are on the SIMS database which is good for non office hour requests.

They are looking at ebooks but there isn't that much content yet. Regarding online material, many publishers are not always happy to deal with the RCS library because speciality journal publishers want individuals to buy their titles. They also make it difficult for overseas member to access services.

Of course this reliance on online material has its downside and risks. They - and other departments at the college - heavily rely upon SIMS. If that was to fall over, that would be very bad. And if the website went down then there round be a problem as Athens directs users to the RCS site, there is no alternative. So they stress the importance of maintenance and communication.

All in all this was a very good learning experience. So when you are at the Hunterian, please feel free to drop by the Library next door.

Oh and finally, if you need to know what classification system they use, it's the Barnard classification system, originally designed for veterinary libraries and evolved into human use...


  1. Sounds fascinating. I used to work with the Barnard scheme, at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Cyril Barnard, after whom the CILIP HLG Barnard prize is named, was Librarian at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and devised it as, 'A classification for medical and veterinary libraries', so its origins are in both human and animal health. How many other libraries use it? Often thought of establishing a Barnard Users Group

  2. Apparently there is a section at Senate House and the Wellcome Library use Barnard. I'd never heard of it...such a bad librarian! I should have also checked my facts. CB

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