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Global Health & Health Equity: European Medical Libraries during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Submitted by Maurella Della Seta, President, European Association of Health Information and Libraries; edited by Lilian Hoffecker, Hub Editor: Global Health & Health Equity, MLAConnect

As president of the European Association of Health Information and Libraries (EAHIL), the most active European association in the field of medical information, I had a privileged view of how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting libraries. In fact, I have been in regular contact with my colleagues of the EAHIL Executive Board from various European countries, even after the last face-to-face meeting in Stockholm at the beginning of March.

EAHIL strongly believes that health and illness know no frontiers. The systems for delivering health care in different European nations have more common features than differences, despite political and economic influences. The mission of EAHIL is to improve library services to the health professions by cooperation and shared experience across national boundaries. It encourages professional development, improves cooperation, and shares experience amongst its members. For these purposes, EAHIL organizes an annual event—a conference or an interactive workshop—usually attended by 300–400 members, but this year, 2020, was different in every respect. The organizers of the EAHIL2020 Online conference, which was supposed to take place in Łódź, Poland, last June, decided to deliver the conference as a virtual event, now scheduled for November 16–18. It will be a new experience for our association, but expectations for participation and involvement of colleagues are encouraging.

The Journal of the European Association for Health Information and Libraries (JEAHIL) is the official quarterly publication of the association. It publishes original articles, reviews, theme issues, and brief communications in the field of health information and libraries. The latest issue is devoted entirely to the theme of medical libraries, especially in Europe, facing the COVID-19 pandemic. It presents experiences from the perspectives of various countries, including reports from librarians in Brazil, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the World Health Organization Library.

As Federica Napolitani Cheyne, editor-in-chief of JEAHIL, states in her editorial, “Our New Normal,”

We have had to confront changes that, albeit already underway before the outbreak, were massively accelerated and enlarged. We had to deal with innovations that were abruptly introduced to cope with the new safety measures and health issues.

A common experience of different libraries is that dealing with innovations was not the only challenge but that they became even busier during the months of the pandemic. Here are a few examples of the activities carried out during lockdown, and beyond.

  • Libraries provided information about the pandemic itself, preparing bulletins and rapid reviews of scientific literature that had been published or were in the pipeline. In Italy, in the National Institute of Health, where I have been working since March 2020 as head of the Documentation Unit, staff members distributed a bulletin called Covid Contents during the most difficult months at the beginning of the pandemic.
  • Medical information specialists and librarians responded to the demand for information regarding this new disease by searching databases and other sources to locate evidence on treatment and coping with the disease.
  • Libraries had to increase their remote services to scientists and health personnel. Some libraries, such as those in Sweden, remained physically open at the beginning of the pandemic and introduced more socially distanced spaces to avoid crowding.
  • Some libraries implemented digital reference services through online platforms. The use of a virtual reference desk was relatively low however, perhaps because users did not feel completely comfortable with video chats.

After reading the reports in JEAHIL from colleagues at various medical libraries, a key message is that the medical librarian profession is always vital and represents an important support for health services. The search for evidence-based scientific literature, document delivery, and reference services is still important for the community of doctors and researchers, even if it is provided remotely or in a different form than usual. The response of medical libraries to new circumstances was rapid, was effective, and tried to meet user needs in the best way possible.

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