I started my professional library career with a two year stint at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, before moving to work at Bradford Royal Infirmary (BRI) in 1996. I was fortunate to have Ian King as my manager at BRI, and even though I was only in that post for two years, he taught me a huge amount about health libraries (although memories of his “filing system” still make me shudder!)

We were a small team at Bradford, housed in an even smaller office, and it did sometimes feel like a giant game of musical chairs … if you left your seat for too long, someone else quickly moved in. Ian had developed the library catalogue using Inmagic (I’d learnt about this at library school, but never thought I’d see it in practice), and we also used this for interlibrary loans. Requesting articles from the British Library involved crawling on the floor to plug the modem in, and remembering not to trip over the wire which then hung perilously across the middle of the office.

Literature searching on Medline and CINAHL was done using CDs, provided by Ovid. My Thursday evening shift was frequently spent swapping the CDs around, and updating from the latest upload – whilst being looked down upon by the rows of Index Medicus tomes on the shelves above me. I was grateful to be able to use the CDs to search (rather than hand searching through the printed Index Medicus), although there was no way the technology would let me search, and print, at the same time. We never mastered that one.

Whilst in Bradford I also regularly worked at Lynfield Mount Hospital (then in a tiny room) and also provided cover for Bradford Health Authority at New Mill (in a huge and airy room) – they really were worlds apart.

In 1998 I moved to Leeds Health Authority, and joy of joys, not only did I have my own desk, but all computers had internet access on them! That was a really big deal at the time. The job kept me fit as I regularly used to walk up to the Medical and Dental Library at Leeds University to photocopy the articles that I needed. I was also part of the regional voucher scheme, regularly posting yellow and green vouchers to other libraries in return for journal articles. The BMA article request system involved sticking their stamps onto request forms and posting them off – it reminded me of the Green Shield stamps that I’d seen at my grandad’s house! My access to databases was through Dialog, a terrifying dial up system at the time, whereby if you pressed a wrong button, you could end up with a bill for hundreds of pounds for articles retrieved. Thankfully, I didn’t have to use that for too long.

My post at Leeds Health Authority had been created as a direct result of HSG (97) 47, which talked about four key areas: funding, resources, access (for all staff to a library service), and region-wide co-ordination. Regional support was provided for us at the time by Alison Bramley (covering Yorkshire), alongside her colleague David Peacock (in the North East), and both reporting to John Hewlett, who was in charge of the regional library team for the area. It was this team that brought us HEROINE. The acronym stood for Health Electronic Resources Online in Northern England (which included internet access to Medline etc via Ovid), but it certainly raised eyebrows if you said you wanted to talk to clinical colleagues about heroin(e). It was a fantastic facility through, and enabled access to resources for everyone.

Over the years, systems have come and gone. We’ve had the National Electronic Library for Health (NeLH), then the National Library for Health, and databases have been provided through differing suppliers and in various guises. Organisations have come and gone through NHS re-organisation (I’ve lost count of the number of different organisations that I’ve TUPE’d my way between in Leeds), and geographical areas of partnership have altered. But the one constant throughout has been regional support. The regional teams (who themselves have not been immune to organisational and geographical boundary changes) have always been there to provide support (financial and otherwise), wisdom and a listening ear.

Things have changed beyond recognition from when I first started in health libraries, and 2020 has brought yet more change, at a pace faster than anyone would have imagined.
So what next for health librarians? I can’t predict what will come next, apart from the fact that things will change. They always do. But I do believe that if we stay true to our values, and keep helping to improve the care of the patients that our NHS organisations serve, there’s no other job that I’d rather be doing.

Helen Swales,
Library Services Manager
Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust