Why medical librarians want to help

Beyond the clear demand for reliable consumer health information which informs their mission to promote general health literacy, medical librarians have an organizational incentive to help public libraries deliver consumer health information. Academic and hospital libraries are pressed to deliver service to their primary clientele: the staff and students at their institutions. The fact that many consumer and patient health information needs never make it into the medical library is also well documented.(1) These factors may have something to do with the fact that only 15% of academic medical libraries in a 2000 survey “actively promote[d] public use” of their facilities.(2) Helping public librarians meet the consumer and patient demand for health information can free the medical librarian’s time while helping the public library with its work and providing meaningful outreach to the community.(3)

In a 1994 article, Anne Humphries and Julia Kochi wrote about the experience of the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library at the University of Virginia in planning an online health information system for area public libraries and carving out a consumer health section in the Claude Moore Health Sciences Center library. Their work was motivated in part by the obligation to observe the HSL’s service agenda. But it also demonstrates the importance of health and medical librarians going outside their institutions to work with individuals who are in direct contact with the public. While medical librarians have expertise in health sciences literature, public librarians’ knowledge of the consumer services environment was essential to building services that would serve the public need.(3) Outreach work remains a priority at the HSC library, which has designated an Outreach Librarian to work with a Cancer Care project in the Appalachian region of Virginia .

Roger Guard and his colleagues at NetWellness partner institutions reported in 2000 on their experience developing a consumer health information service for the people of Ohio. Medical faculty at the University of Cincinnati, Case Western Reserve University, and The Ohio State University, generated content for and answer questions that come in through an “Ask An Expert” link via this free online service, which is delivered to all Ohioans via the state’s 700 public libraries. Librarians at the participating medical schools support and promote the program from within their institutions. NetWellness updates and edits its content to address the health issues that are prevalent among its users, and accessible to a range of health literacy levels, and user surveys have shown that this approach is effective as user demographics have shifted since the program started; the average income level of users has dropped, which means the site is likely reaching users of a lower health literacy level.(4)


1. Eakin D, Jackson S, Hannigan G. Consumer Health Information – Libraries as Partners. Bull Med Libr Assoc 1980;68(2):220-229.

2. Hollander SM. Providing health information to the general public: A survey of current practices in academic health sciences libraries. Bull Med Libr Assoc. 2000 Jan;88(1):62-9.

3. Humphries AW, Kochi JK. Providing Consumer Health Information through Institutional Collaboration. Bull Med Libr Assoc 1994 JAN 1994;82(1).

4. Guard R, Fredericka T, Kroll S, Marine S, Roddy C, Steiner T, et al. Health care, information needs, and outreach: reaching Ohio’s rural citizens. Bull Med Libr Assoc 2000 OCT;88(4):374-381.

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