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Amazing libraries

Last night round the supper table we discussed libraries. My husband, who has spent the majority of his previous 44 years with headphones attached to his ears, has become aware that many of his musical icons have also published books. However, with two daughters to get through university, a mortgage and a dog that seems to be requiring more of the vet's attention than seems reasonable at her age, there isn't much money left for book purchases.

“You mean”, he said, “that I can walk into our local library and ask them to get a specific book for me, and they will?” “Well”, I said, “it might cost you 50p or thereabouts”. “But what if they haven't got it?  “They'll order it for you.”  He sat back in astonishment: “That's amazing!”

And when you think about it, he's right. It is an amazing public service that we take for granted. Furthermore, I realised how much I have become dependent on the library system, not just in reading for pleasure, but also in my work. Most of us working in the NHS have access to a medical library, either at our local hospital or local university. It is well worth befriending the senior librarian there who usually possesses amazing information retrieval skills far beyond their public image of someone who spends the day rubber stamping books and telling everyone to be quiet.        

IT has opened up the library system more widely than I would have thought possible. I have been an on-and-off student at York University since the mid-80s, but live out in the sticks. When I started studying, a literature search involved driving 20 miles to the university, shuffling through the card index or those huge thick books that listed published articles and then standing in the queue by the photocopier. Now I can find, retrieve and print almost everything I need from the comfort of my desk at home! It saves me hours of time. Of course you can't get hold of everything at home. Recently, I mentioned in passing to a librarian that I had come across an American PhD thesis that looked relevant to my work, but obviously I couldn't travel to the American university to have a look at it. To my astonishment she said that they could almost certainly borrow a copy for me!

Of course, information overload is possible. The relative ease of information retrieval makes it imperative to learn the skills for sifting the wheat from the chaff (or failing that to learn where to find presifted information by those who do have those skills). With that in mind, I'm off to surf the Cochrane library in the hope that someone has already done a good evaluation of the effectiveness of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for wound healing. Happy reading.