Letter from the Medical Library

I work as a Helpdesk Supervisor for the Medical Libraries of the University of Edinburgh. This means that I normally divide my time between the Royal Infirmary and the Western General Hospital, where the libraries are located.

We provide a necessary service for medical students, researchers and medical staff. For their indispensable work, both students and staff rely on our collections, our inter-library loans service, and on our facilities. I like to think that we are their little safe haven, after long shifts on the wards.

On 18 March, I went to work for two hours. I spent the majority of the briefest and most bizarre shift of my career telling our students, staff, nurses and doctors that the library would be closing at 11am, until further notice. While the majority of our patrons are lovely, there are always some that like to test your customer care skills to their limits. “What’s that suppose tae mean,” they bark. “It means until further notice,” I reply with my best librarian smile. They give me a look of plain old hate and march determinately towards one of our PC stations, muttering stuff like “Well, I will use it as long as I AM ALLOWED TO”. Others wander in a state of panic and confusion around the shelves grabbing random textbooks. We are a small library, and I know the majority of our patrons, either by sight or by name. I notice one of our junior doctors who is specialising in cardiology grabbing a few books from the gynaecology section. I do not ask questions anymore. The unspoken oath of the librarian, thou shall accept any weird requests without questioning.

When I finally lock the library door, I feel weird. It is a mixture of pre-Christmas closure feeling, anxiety, and guilt. How will we provide service for our patrons? Online is not enough, as any librarian will know. No email or online chat can beat the face-to-face service a librarian can offer, or the necessary headspace a library provides. I worry about our students – getting a degree in medicine is hard enough as it is and closing down an essential service during such an uncertain time is a big blow for them. We have left some of our PC lounge areas available for our NHS staff, and that is the least we can do for the warriors of this terrible moment of human history.

Someone once told me that hope is a discipline that needs to be practised every day. I try to apply this to my own little household too, where the effects of the lockdown are starting to show. When I walked into the kitchen for my coffee break this morning, I found my husband giving the cat a photoshoot with his ancient Canon. I don’t know if I am more disturbed by the fact that the cat is actually posing for it, or by the fact that I am not the chosen model for my husband’s photographic pursuits. What does she have that I don’t? Is it the tail? While I ponder such thoughts, I have a glimpse of lucidity in which I start to realise how much I miss my libraries, my colleagues, and my students. I hope we can all get back soon. At least for the cat’s sake.

Featured image of bookshelves by Zaini Izzuddin on Unsplash