Wilding, H. (2014). Implementing the mental health specialist librarian role at St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne.
Health Inform, 23(1), 18-22.
Implementing the Mental Health Specialist Librarian role
at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne
Helen Wilding, Research Librarian, St Vincent’s Hospital Library Service, Melbourne
The role of health libraries has changed dramatically with the move to electronic resources, and with
that has come a fantastic opportunity to reinvent ourselves as skilled consultants in the research
environment. When electronic journals first made their appearance (and Google appeared),
librarians started to look like an endangered species. Would we still be needed in a world where
people can conjure up almost anything at the click of a button?
The answer, of course, is yes. We may have less books to stamp, but our skills as information
specialists are needed more than ever. The reality of the electronic publishing revolution is that
there is such an overload of information that clients are really struggling to find what they want – let
alone explain how they found it. These are skills that are in high demand in the world of medical
publications and systematic reviews. But how do we become a part of that world? How do we
demonstrate our capabilities and their benefit to clients? How do we market our skills?
St Vincent’s Hospital Library Service
St Vincent’s Hospital is a large teaching, research and tertiary health service which employs over
5,000 staff across 18 different sites. The library service runs across 3 campuses, with 3.5 EFT
librarians, most of whom job share. Traditionally, clients came and found us in the library, but with
electronic resources that has all changed. Most of our work is now done over the internet and via
email. Many of our clients never see us – which makes it tricky to have a conversation, or make a
strong connection. Without becoming more pro-active, there is a risk of becoming “out of sight, out
At a library planning day in 2012 we discussed the possibility of liaison roles, where library staff
could visit hospital departments to network and provide orientation sessions. This would be an
enormous job for a small library service with so many departments to cover, and there was a risk of
spreading ourselves too thin. We decided it was more useful to concentrate on broader subject
areas that would be relevant across many different disciplines, departments and sites. Initial
suggestions were nursing, aged care, rehabilitation, palliative care, mental health, copyright and
Endnote. We would still offer our usual services to all hospital staff, regardless of profession or
department, but each librarian would also specialise and gain expertise in a particular subject area.
Choosing a speciality in mental health
My own passion in the world of medical research is in mental health. I was familiar with the area
because of my experience as a carer, and I was keen to put that knowledge to use in a different
context. It was playing to my own personal strengths, and I felt it was an area where I could really
add value. I was ready for the challenge, genuinely interested in the subject, and very motivated to
implement the role of mental health specialist librarian.
Introducing the specialist role
Having a “champion”, a senior researcher I had worked with previously, was absolutely crucial to
implementing my new role. It was really helpful to have someone who could vouch for my abilities,
and who was keen to support me and make introductions. Through her, I was invited to a meeting of
the Mental Health Department’s active Research & Academic Group, a large group of senior
researchers and managers headed by the Chair of Psychiatry. It was the perfect opportunity to
introduce myself and explain what the library and I could offer. I was made extremely welcome and
invited to join the group on a permanent basis. Attending these meetings gave me an insight into
ongoing staff interests and current research priorities, and enabled me to form working partnerships
with staff members.
Joining the Research & Academic Group and gaining the support of the Chair of Psychiatry was key
to my acceptance as a mental health specialist librarian. However it was also important to introduce
the role to a much wider group, including mental health nurses, staff on night shift, psychiatrists,
psychologists, pharmacists, registrars, allied health, admin staff and mental health professionals
working in different areas.
I put together an email contact list using the hospital’s Microsoft Outlook address book, searching
for staff working in mental health, psychiatry or various clinics. I created an initial list of about 380
recipients covering a huge variety of areas, all of whom I felt would have some interest in using my
services or receiving mental health updates. (The list fluctuates from time to time as staff come and
go, but is well over 400 these days. I regularly receive requests to add more people.)
I sent my first group email in November 2012, introducing myself as an information professional,
explaining what a subject specialist librarian was, and assuring recipients that I was familiar with the
subject and spoke their language. I made it clear that I was there to save them time and make them
look good - and survey results a year later proved that we achieved that. The subject line of my email
then, and ever since, started with the word “Library”, continually linking my role back to the library
and promoting the service as a whole. I started receiving responses and requests for assistance
immediately. Many requests came from staff who had previously been unaware of the library, or
who could not have visited because of shift work or their location. Obviously, there was an unmet
need waiting to be filled. It was a very promising start.
Current awareness bulletin – Mental Health Update
A one off email was clearly not going to be enough to keep the library’s profile up, or promote
myself as a contact point. The obvious answer was to produce an ongoing current awareness update
specific to mental health.
The library manager was already producing a regular Knowledge Update on a weekly basis, which
covered areas of general interest to hospital staff. Using this as a template, I created my own Mental
Health Update, following the same general style and, once again, linking back to our service as a
whole. This was fairly quickly followed by another librarian creating an Aged Care Update and a
Rehabilitation Update, expanding the options for our clients.
Mental Health Update was emailed fortnightly as a PDF attachment with links to a variety of recent
full text articles. The content was chosen to appeal widely, and not just to researchers. I also
advertised the ability to carry out specific literature searches or set up search alerts for individuals as
part of our usual library services. Staff publications were highlighted, and from time to time special
issues were created on particular topics, such as medication compliance and recovery.
In the first year of publication, 25 issues of Mental Health Update were produced, referencing 750
feature articles, 39 of which were by St Vincent’s mental health staff. Each issue was sent to
approximately 400 recipients. Feedback was extremely positive, including:
“My particular work really benefits from keeping informed of the resources available and of
the kind of work that others are doing. We also forward these links to others in our team
who are based at the University of Melbourne and with other public health services so St.
Vincent's is seen as an academic leader and a service that is striving for excellence.”
“The regular email produced by the Mental Health Subject Specialist Librarian is very succinct
with clear layout and easy to use hyperlinks which makes me want to read it as I know it is
not going to take me too long to read. It is comforting to know that a specialist has already
'combed' the literature and selected both relevant and interesting articles to read.”
“Receiving the updates keeps me involved in current research which is essential in Master of
Mental health studies. The articles are shared around my workplace keeping the team
informed in current best practice and evolving research in our area.”
Other ways of promoting the role
As my profile as a specialist librarian has grown there have been a number of opportunities for
further collaboration or networking. I have been increasingly included as a member of the mental
health research team, which has been very rewarding. Opportunities have included:
co-presentation of a book review for the Eric Seal Book Club run by St Vincent’s Mental
Health (continuing professional development)
individual database searching tutorials for mental health staff at all levels
literature searches (requests from mental health staff have increased exponentially)
supporting and involvement in systematic reviews for publication – in some cases leading to
consultancy via face to face meetings was provided on a huge variety of issues, including
Grant applications, website development, conference presentations, organising
departmental files and supporting change to the new Mental Health Act
Outcomes for the library
The mental health subject specialist role was evaluated in October 2013, eleven months after
implementation. A survey was distributed via the usual email list, and 80 responses were received.
The responses reflected a good mix of professional roles, suggesting that the role enhanced
connections to all levels of mental health staff. Feedback was extremely positive and demonstrated
that the new role was valuable.
In summary, as a result of the specialist role:
45% improved patient care
33% modified current practice
49% considered new viewpoints
60% saved time
41% increased productivity
74% increased current awareness
76% became aware of what else was happening in their team
73% went on to use other library resources.
57% requested copies of journal articles on inter library loan
49% requested literature searches.
26% attended database searching tutorials
99% read Mental Health Update
84% went on to read feature articles
Overall, support of the role was very positive, and 48 extended comments were received, including:
“We have been supported by the Mental Health Librarian to initiate enquiry into an aspect of
patient care that is not looked at by many mental health services. This has enabled us to take
a lead in the field nationally and internationally, with published papers in specialist medical
journals and presented at international conferences”
“Very good service helps drive clinical innovation by allowing easy access to emerging
practice and evidence base. Also is good to encourage staff to use and get them into the
habit of looking at the literature before embarking on innovations, helps enormously to bring
more rigour to our clinical practice.”
“The presence of a proactive library is a big part of this culture at STV. In contemporary
health we are overwhelmed by information and the specialist skills a mental health librarian
has brought helps enormously in getting to the information that we need to keep our
practise up to date and ahead of the 'game'. “
In addition to the survey we looked at general library statistics. These suggested a much wider
impact of the role on the use of general library services, as there had been no other major changes
during the same period of time. There were substantial increases in database tutorials, literature
searches and Endnote tutorials. Inter library loan requests for journal articles not available under St
Vincent’s subscriptions had increased exponentially – from 597 requests in the period Jan-Dec 2012
to 927 in the period Jan-Sept 2013 (only 9 months). Psychiatry journal usage had increased by
Full survey results are available on request, and a complete evaluation will be written up at a later
Outcomes as an individual
As an individual I have found the experience extremely positive. I feel more interested, motivated,
challenged and fulfilled as a professional. I feel I have something of value to offer. I have made
connections with people I genuinely enjoy working with. I have an excuse to focus on an area of
research that fascinates me. I have learnt an enormous amount about how other professionals use
our services – such as where the results of our literature searches go. I am excited about
collaborating on projects. I really enjoy the interdisciplinary partnership, which is demonstrated by
my inclusion in articles for publication.
But most importantly I feel I have made a difference - and that is priceless.
Opportunities and partnership
There has been a huge uptake of library services by mental health staff at St Vincent’s since the
introduction of a specialist librarian, particularly in the area of advanced research support. It should
be noted, however, that this was not just a matter of librarians reaching out – it was also about
senior mental health staff and management accepting, enabling and pro-actively supporting a
partnership. An open and forward looking attitude on both sides is what made it work.
Contrary to concerns about libraries becoming redundant, the success of this role has highlighted
the enormous opportunities that exist for librarians and information professionals today. All of the
statistics we have collected at St Vincent’s agree – we are busier than ever. It is what we are
counting that is different – rather than books in and books out, our focus is on the specialist services
we offer – database searching tutorials, consultations, literature searches, inter library loans,
Endnote tutorials, involvement in systematic reviews and articles for publication. This is the added
value we bring to the modern research environment – as skilled consultants - and it’s a whole lot
more fun than stamping books.