Making the most of library facilities: student views of challenging the traditional definition of a library

Over the past decade there have been many changes in medical education both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. A career in medicine requires the constant pursuit of new information, essential for improved patient care, research and even when writing for publication! Both undergraduates and postgraduates have had to become efficient self directed life long learners. Undergraduates for example have had to develop searching skills and strategies as part of problem based learning, whilst postgraduates must keep abreast of developments and keep their clinical knowledge up to date to ensure competancy and professional development.

The pursuit of new knowledge is challenging and requires specialist skills. Evidence based medicine requires critical appraisal of information which can then be used to inform clinical decision making. On line searching skills are required to make the most of resources available - resources that are increasing at a phenomenal rate. It is hardly surprising that many feel frustrated and pressured.

The library has traditionally been able to provide all the support that is needed. Much is on offer with the librarian not only being an information expert able to advise on a range of resources, but also a trainer and service provider. However, in the modern age the concept of a library has become more decentralized, with many students exclusively searching through online resources. The emphasis has shifted from a trained librarian able to direct students to relevant sources to the individual student who is often self-taught in the art of online searching.

You can however expect all libraries to offer the following range of services whether you are at medical school, working for an NHS Trust, or approaching a professional organization such as the BMA or Royal Society of Medicine.

  • Inquiry services
  • Loan and inter-library services
  • Document delivery services
  • Access to a wide range of electronic journals, books etc
  • Alerting services (such as tables of contents alerts for selected journals or regular updates on chosen topics)
  • On line literature searching
  • Training in on line searching skills
  • Training in critical appraisal techniques

With loan, interlibrary and document delivery services the move towards electronic delivery is almost complete. Already many libraries provide a service where electronically scanned copies of articles can be e mailed to you within a matter of days. The BMA provides this service, so if you are an NHS doctor you can access a wide range of information via the National Library for Health website. This website hosts the NHS Core Content Collection which provides access to full text articles from over 1000 journals; the Cochrane database of systematic reviews and a library of e books.

Alerting services are a really good way of keeping up to date with all new developments in your specialty. Evidence of having kept up to date being required for annual appraisal meetings and ultimately for revalidation. The Royal Society of Medicine has electronic monthly updates for its members and the BMA offers a selected dissemination of information service where a weekly targeted search is run on MEDLINE and the results sent by email.

The literature searching service (usually on MEDLINE) is widely available - so make the most of this facility. Interestingly research has shown that an experienced professional searcher can find 30% more information on MEDLINE than an inexperienced searcher might find!

From medical student following a PBL curriculum to career doctor, who must keep up to date, on line searching skills are essential. Often training on how to efficiently and effectively search available data bases is required. Librarians are available to provide this training along with other courses covering health information on the internet and critical appraisal skills. It is important to recognize the availability of this training, research has shown that experienced searchers are more likely to extract relevant information from an online search. With many first-time searchers adopting a ‘trial and error’ approach it often takes months to years of use before they become proficient, training in this area would significantly improve first time researching skills.

Some librarians may also provide courses on the use of reference management software, for example EndNote - very relevant to medical students working towards production of Special Study Modules and career doctors working towards higher qualifications, production of dissertations and material for publication.

So where from here? Finding out exactly what your library (whether University or NHS Trust) can offer is a good starting point. However services available via membership of professional organizations and Royal Colleges should also be investigated. Developing a good working relationship with the librarians makes a lot of sense as it keeps you in the loop as services develop. Providing feedback as to what you have found useful is often appreciated by the library service and it helps ensure you continue to have your needs met.

We need to remember that:

  • Libraries and their staff remain an essential and evolving resource
  • Their role has changed substantially over the last decade
  • They have become increasingly decentralized with the advent of on line searching
  • The services they offer have adapted to this change and continue to be essential to the professional life of medical student and career doctor.

For more information contact

For more information:

MEDEV, School of Medical Sciences Education Development,
Faculty of Medical Sciences, Newcastle University, NE2 4HH