At the heart of the modern library service are information sharing and collaboration. We may think that modern IT infrastructure and the migration of evidence to an online environment is what really drives this forward. But is this right? Is the 21st century approach really that different from the experience of our library colleagues of days past?

We live in an age of online resources. The rapid transfer of information has been opened up by an updating of copyright laws (IPO 2014) which reflects the reality of the ever-growing online environment, and how that allows us to transfer information.

It is undeniable that a ‘shift to a computer-driven reality has had a major effect on libraries’. (Bowers 2018). If you have worked in libraries for any length of time you will have seen a massive change in the way day-to-day business is done.

What happens when we look beyond the administration and daily applications though? How much has there been a shift in attitude or what is perceived as a core need in the library community?
A key concern for libraries generally is how to access the information their end users need. In the case of the healthcare library community that means collaboration and sharing the latest medical information.

In today’s world we are trying to either break down paywalls or work out a legitimate way around them. Sharing and dissemination of information is key to how we operate but how new is that concept really?

I would suggest that the very nature of libraries immediately opens up the need to collborate. The presence of paywalls and the internet may make it seem like a very modern necessity but it isn’t really.

It has recently been suggested that a key to success for librarians is “actively seeking out collaborative opportunities and becoming active partners in relevant projects.” (Pizzarelli et al 2019).
In fact this need for collaboration is not new. It has long been there. Before the internet became as prevalent as it is today Peterson (1999) was advocating collaboration in the education sector that librarians could help with and benefit from.

Whilst the reference may not have been to the healthcare sector a mutually-beneficial collaboration between librarians and other professionals is definitely something which is transferable.
The thing that really struck me though was one simple question. How far back does the idea of collaborating as the key to library success really go? Could we pick up journals or books on healthcare and related knowledge from the mid 20th Century and see similar things being advocated? Could we go even further back?

As far back as the late 19th Century the benefits of library collaboration and information sharing were being extolled as a virtue for all, ‘The essence of a reference library is to have the books obtainable, with some ready means of knowing just where each is to be found. It is not necessary that they should be all collected under one roof and one ownership. It is only necessary their titles and location should be furnished in a well arranged catalogue.’ (Dana 1898)

We recognise this in our own daily work although it is unlikely Dana envisioned how collaboration and resource sharing would take place in the digital era!
Further the very essence of the world wide web – a connected network of information accessible to all - was already being dreamed of by librarians. ‘I look forward to such an organization of the literary records of medicine that a puzzled worker in any -part of the civilized world shall in an hour be able to gain a knowledge pertaining to a subject of the experience of every other man in the world.’ (Gould 1898)

We may think our networked society is an ultra-modern phenomenon. In the world of the library it is more a culmination of an ongoing ethos. As far back as the late 1900s librarians were far sighted enough to understand the need for the transfer of information in a systematic way, brokered through a collaborative approach.

If you work in the NHS, among a variety of employers you will have heard all about people working in silos. Breaking silos down is one area in which librarians have led the way. Collaboration and reaching out are a natural consequence of how we work. Long may it continue.

When a 22nd Century librarian activates whatever device we have yet to imagine to access historical information I hope we will appear as forward thinking to them as our 19th century colleagues do to us.

Chris Lawton
Specialist Librarian for e-resources at Northern Lincolnshire & Goole NHS Foundation Trust



Exceptions to copyright, Libraries, archives & museums Act 1988 IPO (2014). Found online: [accessed 21/03/2019]

Bowers (2018) Information Technology and Libraries at 50: The 1990s in Review. Information Technology and Libraries 37.4 pp9-14

Pizzarelli et al (2019) Teaching and learning in action. Health Information Libraries Journal. 36. 1 pp101-105

Peterson. D. L. (1999 ) Collaboration in teaching and learning. In B. Stripling (Ed.), Learning and libraries in information age (pp. 133–162). Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited/ Teacher Ideas Press.

JC Dana (1898) Instruction for Making the Union Catalogue of Medical Books, etc. Medical Libraries 1 (2) pp1-4.

Gould Geo. M. The work of an association of medical librarians Medical Libraries 1 (4) pp 15-19.