At the Heart of the Response: Health Librarians Support Better Decision-Making around COVID-19

For library and information workers around the world, the main challenge faced is how to continue providing usual services in extraordinary times. In order to minimise disruption to education, research and access to culture, great efforts are being made to address legal, financial, technical and practical challenges.

Yet for some in the library field, these extraordinary times have also brought extraordinary demands and pressures. Health librarians – working in hospitals, research centres and governments – are having to deliver more than ever, even as they face the same restrictions and rules as everyone else.

With today – 7 April – being World Health Day, it is therefore a good opportunity to look at and celebrate their work.


Supporting the Decisions that Matter

It was the coming into force of the Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO) on this day in 1948 that provides the justification for 7 April being World Health Day.

The WHO itself has a strong focus on the importance of information in effective health policies, as well as a very active library which not only acts as a hub for knowledge, but also for its dissemination and application through partnerships and networks globally. This work has been essential as eyes turn to the WHO’s own website, and the advice given there, all based on scientific literature gathered by the team there.

Elsewhere, librarians at the National Library of Medicine in the United States – in particular through the PubMed Central platform, have been supporting vital access to evidence for decision-makers. They have also worked closely with publishers in order to make articles and collections open that would otherwise have been paywalled.

Crucially, they have also worked to underline that collections need to be available in machine-readable format through the COVID-19 Open Research Database. This is essential if researchers are to be able to carry out text and data mining in order to identify potential treatments or cures.

Furthermore, the Library has also acknowledged the importance of discoverability, highlighting tools available for identifying relevant sources on its website.

Clearly, a key contribution to the discovery and application of information comes from it being presented in ways that work for those who need to use it. Here too, health librarians are playing a key role.

From daily briefings to both government and medical decision-makers to more in-depth reviews of the literature on emerging issues, librarians are helping to inform choices made. For example, Public Health England’s Knowledge and Library Services team is producing regular reviews of emerging evidence, while the Irish National Health Library and Knowledge Service is sharing rapid evidence reviews, and the Health Libraries Group of the Australian Library and Information Association has compiled live responses to key literature searches. In Iran, librarians are also supporting efforts to make sense of the existing literature around coronaviruses.


An Informed Public

One of the key lessons already from the response to the COVID-19 Pandemic has been the importance of the actions of individuals. With health systems struggling with the rapid spread of the virus, it has been clear that people need to change their habits and behaviours, distancing themselves from others.

Public health ministries and agencies – again with the help of librarians – have been working hard to produce clear and meaningful information for the public, explaining the situation and the responses needed. This has, for example, been helpful for the library field in understanding the risk of contagion via surfaces such as books or computer mice.

There is also a role – not just for health librarians, but for the library field as a whole – in promoting wider health literacy. When people can understand the global situation, and how and why they should act themselves, the job of those in charge of ending the pandemic is clearly easier.

Of course – just as in the case of decision-makers – the spread of this information and these skills depends often on how well adapted they are to the target audience. Simply placing things on a website may not be enough, especially for users who may have limited digital skills or even no access to a computer.

This is of course another area where libraries have a unique role to play as community organisations. It is also the subject of a webinar organised by IFLA’s Evidence for Global and Disaster Health Special Interest Group and Health and Bioscience Libraries Section, due to take place on 23 April. This will look at the lessons that can be learnt from past practice, and what more libraries can do to make sure that all members of society have the information they need to cope in these difficult times.

Join us, find out more, and share your ideas on 23 April!