Last summer I submitted my master’s dissertation titled ‘What are the challenges faced by NHS libraries with regards to space and how might they be addressed?’. It was punishing and overwhelming but I think I enjoyed writing it. I can now put MA at the end of my email signature and my mum can proudly tell all her friends her son1 has a master’s degree.
I thought it would be useful to share my findings in a structured abstract2.
My literature review and found there wasn’t much out there on there on the topic at all. The few empirical studies that existed were largely in an academic or public library context and outside of the UK. There was some supporting grey literature from HEE and CILIP but it was woolly, vague and open to interpretation.
Covid-19 had a huge impact on physical library space and it seemed every other mailing-list post notified me that X library had closed. This got me thinking of all of the conversations I’ve had over the years with library staff regarding the challenges they’ve had regarding their space. The project aimed to identify these challenges and see what library services have done to try to overcome them. It also planned to examine the opinions of library staff on their space and how they felt it was perceived by stakeholders.
13 health library staff from a variety of roles took part in semi-structured interviews. They were recruited from regional health library networks and mailing lists3. Transcripts were analysed, coded and grouped by themes.
Four main themes arose from the results:
- Challenges to library space are inevitable and out of library staff hands
Funding; building limitations; location of library; organisational restructuring; space being taken away; global pandemic.
- The impact of fractured relationships on the space
Relationships with users, line-managers and senior management, the wider organization and HEE
- The importance of the print collection and how it can be best utilised
Print vs electronic to save space; repurpose space by reducing print collections; archiving and “rehoming” books
- The day-to-day challenges
IT; library becoming a dumping ground; outdated furniture and decoration; noise.
A final theme discussed the ways in which health libraries have tried to overcome the challenges, in particular embracing change and applying for external funding.
Conclusions and recommendations
A common thread through most interviews was that the library is not a priority within their organisations. Another overall finding was the stark differences in perception of the library space by distinct stakeholder groups. There is a marked contrast between what the management, organisation and HEE perceive the library to be compared to what the library staff know it is and needs. And the final conclusion, as expected, the libraries fervently want people to use their services and physical spaces.
Here are some of my recommendations:
- Shout about what the library does at every opportunity! People need to know the library exists and the glorious resources and services it offers. Getting people through the door and, where possible, evolving your service to meet their needs, will create library champions – something very handy when the people with clipboards come round looking to cull space.
- Senior management need to take time to learn the value of the library space and, by extension, the library team. I’m aware this is optimistic, but too many decisions are being made without consulting library staff. Let them know you’re there!
- Change is inevitable. Library staff must embrace this by being flexible, adapting to the situation and reframing it as an opportunity. This doesn’t mean you roll over and not fight your corner, but perhaps choose your battles. Maybe sacrifice a bit of the print journal collection because you’ve got a digital version and not many people weren’t using it anyway…
- There’s (some) money out there and you’ve just gotta bid for it.
- NHS library staff should communicate with each other - you are innovative, creative, and lovely. Through sharing concerns, you may find that other libraries have found a solution to a shared problem. So chuck it on a mailing list. Whinge over a break time cup of coffee at a regional meeting. I can assure you from talking to people for this dissertation that you’re not the only ones dealing with shared challenges. By raising the profile of this issue, it will hopefully go some way in supporting those who have faced, currently are facing and will face challenges with regards to their library space.
1 favourite son
2 please do not apply any CASP checklist to this abstract as it will not hold up to any robust examination. My dissertation got a half-decent mark, but this blog post is informal beyond belief
3 if I bump into any of the contributors at a conference, I owe you a cup of tea
Ryan Ford, Assistant Librarian
Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust