Users of health libraries

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  • Updated.jpg This entry is out of date, and will not be updated July 2017


See also Consumer health information | Evaluating health information | Health libraries portal | Privacy in social networks | Teaching library users | What health librarians do

Users of health libraries have historically presented their information and research needs at reference service points or desks in health libraries. However, today, library users are more self-reliant and use the web before consulting a library professional. Different library users may avail themselves of information found in a well-stocked health or medical library, or will use its computers to search for information available on the web. The information needs of users are sometimes complex, and include diverse professions such as allied health professionals, nurses, pharmacists and physicians. Other groups that can (and should) be encouraged to use their local health library include dental hygienists, diagnostic medical sonographers, dietitians, medical technologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, radiographers, respiratory therapists, and speech language pathologists. A range of health professionals in medicine, dentistry and nursing as well as some of the aforementioned allied health professionals are potential heavy users of health libraries.

Today, many of the health librarian's typical user groups are self-sufficient in searching for information. This is particularly true if the users in question have had information literacy training. Users who seek assistance and search expertise from health librarians typically ask for assistance when confronting more complex research questions. The trend away from seeking basic reference assistance is linked to the increased use and speed associated with web search engines and with the information phenomenon called satisficing (being satisfied with browsing for content, and not being too fussy with the results). Because health librarians have been actively engaged in the teaching and training of physicians and allied health professionals in information literacy, the number of users who seek out reference assistance has dropped. Some types of reference questions and consultations continue to rise, particularly where major research programs are offered in academia and where systematic reviews are conducted. Often these questions are technical or technological in some way. Some health librarians are concerned that their users are not as well-versed in searching as their users believe and that users often accept whatever they find, much to the detriment of the quality of their research and clinical decision-making.

In the information age, health professionals present considerable training and educational needs to health librarians. With an emphasis on evidence-based health care, and the pressure to assimilate large amounts of information (as well as the need to renew credentials and continuing education credits), health library users have many reasons to seek out the expertise and assistance of health librarians. Members of the health professions should aim to be as proficient in using computer technologies as possible and develop their understanding of medical or bioethics, interpersonal communication, information literacy, human resources and social media, among other competencies.

Health librarians can provide a lot of help in helping health professionals reach their learning goals, but only when they take the opportunity to express them fully in the library.

Reference services on the go

The use of health libraries is changing radically in the Internet age. Health and medical librarians are charged with providing information and reference services to medical students and faculty through in-person and online interactions. Increasingly, virtual reference services are provided to support students in their health programs by having a librarian communicate with them via remote chat and instant messaging technologies. Other on-demand and embedded reference services are being tried all the time, and focus on providing information in situ as well as to groups via mobile devices. Typical questions in this setting include how to find specific print and digital resources, using biomedical databases effectively and accessing electronic and digital collections, images and streaming video. Instructional services provided to health students can range from one-on-one consultation to large group workshops where students are trying to meet the demands of their courses (as well as their own learning needs). Occasionally, appointments are made with subject librarians to work on research projects with an emphasis on systematic reviews.

Print / digital collections

Academic libraries provide their users with access to print and electronic collections. However, the trend is towards electronic access (i.e., eBooks). Most health librarians aim to collaborate with their colleagues in building their library collections; other specialized librarians may need to work to support the acquisition of medical texts, electronic journals and biomedical databases in the health library. As a related, complementary activity, librarians who work within Schools are engaged in teaching health program students about searching for information in databases such as PubMed and Medline. More recently, health librarians have started to provide services using the iPhone and iPad.

PBL instruction & medical librarians

The computer lab is an efficient and effective method for teaching library and information skills to users. Health librarians have increasingly extended their teaching online (i.e., social media), instant messaging and via research consultations. Health librarians may be embedded as informationists and clinical librarians (see embedded librarianship). The "curriculum-integrated" mode of teaching encourages librarians to design classes based on user needs. Information literacy is an effective way to engage faculty in collaboration over a longitudinal program. Some PBL programs integrate librarians into team-teaching with medical faculty. Others make use of web-based tutorials and integrate librarians into cases and medical informatics projects. Online tutorials can be tailored to web-based delivery (i.e. accessible anywhere, anytime). Follow-up hands–on teaching can be scheduled to reinforce the learning objectives in medical informatics. Newer programs in health offer unique opportunities for librarians to collaborate with faculty. Health librarians can support PBL programs by participating on committees as the librarian can listen closely to the needs of users and find effective ways to address those needs.

Recent user studies

  • A 2010 JISC report summarized 12 user behavior studies sponsored by RIN, JISC, and OCLC in the UK and the US between 2005-2010
  • In 2007, ACRL published a report on the University of Rochester’s "Studying Students" project (see: This project employed a team of librarians and anthropologists in an attempt to discern how undergraduate students gathered information while preparing research papers. Here’s one of the more interesting findings of this project:
  • "...library staff undertook a reference desk survey to understand changing patterns at the reference desk and followed that up with a set of brief interviews in the student union...The survey and interviews revealed that few students understand what reference librarians do and how reference librarians can help them, nor do they consider asking for the help reference librarians are trained to provide. Rather, students tend to feel that they are good at finding their own resources and answering their own questions. If they need expert advice, they turn either to their instructors or, surprisingly, to their families, whom they contact by phone or e-mail."
  • A group of Illinois academic libraries, inspired by the Rochester project, did a study of undergraduate information-seeking behaviours (see: It employed a team of librarians and anthropologists. Their May 2010 report found that:
  • "While the majority of students we interviewed struggled with one or more aspects of academic research, very few students sought help from a librarian. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of the ERIAL study was the near-invisibility of librarians within the academic worldview of students."


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