My first month as a hospital librarian

My first 31 days have been a whirlwind of new sounds, sights, and hard work – complete with quirky antiquated workplace oddities and a steep learning curve. In many ways, medical librarianship isn’t radically different from other library fields. The fundamental principles don’t change. But it’s still noticeably different, and in certain respects, entirely unique.

The first immediately obvious signal that jumped out at me was hearing the continuous kaleidoscope of colour-coded emergencies and announcements over the hospital PA. Code blue? Medical emergency. Today, that meant summoning obstetricians, midwives, and nurses for a sudden caesarean childbirth in the wards. It’s a constant reminder that you serve at an institution where the core mission is to preserve human life and ward off the spectre of death. There’s something unsettling yet exciting about it even after you begin to adapt.

Western Centre for Health Research and Education
Like many information organisations, the hospital library serves distinct user groups with their own unique needs. It’s been a fascinating journey liaising with these core users and familiarising myself with their particular characteristics. Doctors can be seen rushing around in a hurry, with their beeping pagers blaring out and shattering the wall of silence that pervades the library between emergency announcements. I’m stereotyping a bit here, but they tend to be more demanding and even more time-poor than others. Perhaps understandably. However, that does make it challenging to patiently explain the library’s services and various quirks when faced with a consultant doctor impatiently tapping away at their stethoscope. Also, they often seek highly specialised evidence-based clinical resources, which seriously tests my currently mediocre knowledge of medical terminology (which is rapidly improving!).

The bulk of other library clients are an army of nurses and a wide array of Allied Health practitioners (psychologists, nuclear medicine technologists, speech pathologists, etc). They tend to use the library’s services to bolster their professional development, develop research projects, and supplement their formal medical studies. For all their various categories and differences, the central value that unites the library’s clients is a common passion for public health and patient care. It’s something that I find inspiring, particularly with the shadow of healthcare privatisation looming over us all.

Earlier, I signposted the sense of urgency you feel working as a health librarian. For me, this was best exemplified by my first experience with an urgent medical literature request, marked high priority and linked directly to patient care. On my third day, an urgent interstate request arrived for specific medical journal texts on comorbidity (co-occurrence of one or more diseases, usually resulting in complications). I will probably never know the precise clinical context that gave rise to this request. But that didn’t stop me from sweating and feeling a rush of adrenaline as I mashed out the appropriate concoction of search terms and fired off a hastily crafted reply with the full-text PDF articles attached. An exciting but daunting task for one’s third day as a librarian.

It ain’t always glorious or exciting though, as I’ve quickly come to learn. Honestly, I spend my fair share of time devoted to mundane, menial tasks. Mailing huge tomes between campuses, laminating A4 signs for the hospital wards, shelving journals, and fuming at tedious IT issues or mangled paper jams. Occasionally, I frown and begin to wonder why I spent 18 months on a Masters of Information Management and the relentless, grinding job search earlier this year. But most of the time, I fully appreciate the fact that I’m learning more about the profession and at a more accelerated pace than I ever have before. At long last, I’m mapping all that abstract theory onto a real environment and putting it into practice on a full-time basis. Nothing beats experience and witnessing the fruits of your own labour.

The last thing I’ll flag here is that adapting to full-time professional work on the opposite side of town has been a forbidding challenge for me. The daily 3-4 hour commute has been wearing me thin very fast. I’m slowly adapting, but getting up at 6am on cold winter mornings and arriving home at 7pm after a droning, jolting bus ride doesn’t leave me with much time or energy for much else. Previously an (overly) prolific social media maniac, I’ve dramatically cut down my use (an unintended blessing…?). Other major aspects of my life – soccer journalism, activism, and exercise – have taken a massive hit. It saddens me that I’ll inevitably have to sacrifice one of the three, especially when at least two of them are non-negotiables (if I’m to continue pursuing serious commitments based on my values). But such is life, hey?


10 thoughts on “My first month as a hospital librarian

  1. Pingback: A refreshing new medical librarian blog | The Search Principle: views are my own

  2. Spent a year doing this. (A maternity leave cover) and I thought much the same as you. Being asked to do a literature search on a medical condition knowing there was a patient upstairs awaiting the doctors help was pretty damn scary, but at the same time thrilling.
    The culture was not for me but I’m glad I had the experience

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Cheryl, thanks for commenting!
      Can I ask in what aspects the culture was not for you? Do you mean in relation to the urgency of medical information, or something else about the nature of the job? I’m still thinking about whether health libraries is field that I want to continue to pursue. Undecided. But early days, still.


  3. Hi Steven,

    Glad to read this post and I hope you continue blogging. I used to work on the other side of town and it took 1hr to get there in the morning and 1.2hrs back. I wasn’t in a library at the time though – in a small research unit. Now it only takes me 30mins by tram and I am in a library again. The annoucements are something to get used to aren’t they? I’ve got to sign off now as I’ve just got a request for information for a pt.



    • Hi Catherine,

      Glad to see you’ve found your way to my blog! Thanks for commenting.
      Yes, the long commute is really tough and I don’t think I can sustain it. Hoping to move closer to the Western suburbs soon to keep my sanity alive!

      P.S. One of my planned blog posts is to summarise and reflect on your Levels of Evidence session :)

      Hope you are well. I need to catch up on those HLA Journal Club discussions!


  4. Be careful about neglecting those other aspects of your life just because your commute has gotten longer. In stressful situations those other things can often be the things that save us!


  5. Hi Steven,

    I am almost a year into my time working in a hospital library. Hearing the codes being called definitely takes some getting used to! I know exactly how you feel about literature searches, that added pressure of knowing it will impact patient care can be daunting. I know I worry about missing something and not finding that perfect article that will fit their request exactly. Luckily I get to work with some great doctors who usually let me know if the information I sent helped! I also find the Medlib-l list very helpful and watch for any class announcements and try to take whatever I can.

    I hope your day is going well and free of IT problems!



  6. Pingback: Returning to blogging for #BlogJune 2015! | Querying libraries

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