Knowledge into Action: Supporting Health Librarians

July 13, 2011

A Storage Unit for Books

Participants, including Mr. Paul, during the pilot training of the Basic Course in Health Sciences Library Management, held in Iringa. (Photo: Lauren Dunnington)

When Mr. Athanas Paul, a Tanzanian nursing tutor, first began overseeing the health library at the Mirembe School of Nursing, he recognized it as a place to stockpile information. Dutifully, he added materials when they arrived, and the library continued to grow. Still, many of the library’s materials were outdated, and students, researchers, and health care workers had trouble sorting through the collection. It soon became clear that the Mirembe library had to become more than a storage space–but where to begin?

Almost without realizing it, Mr. Paul had assumed a role shared by a dedicated and often overlooked group of professionals— people working worldwide to support high quality health care, education, and health systems strengthening. He’d begun to serve as a librarian.

Knowledge to Support Health Care Workers

Accurate, updated research, information, and learning materials help students, scholars, and health care workers provide high quality care and stay current in their fields. By helping these groups access information, librarians form a critical bridge—turning knowledge into action.* In Tanzania, the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare (MOHSW), with support from I-TECH, is working to gradually improve the libraries in its eight ZHRCs and in pre-service health training facilities.

To begin this effort, the MOHSW collaborated with an I-TECH team to conduct a formal assessment of existing library facilities. The team found that despite dedicated librarians and volunteers, libraries often lack human resources, space, materials, computers, and Internet connectivity. Often, expertise on Internet-based research is limited, and overall, there are few trainings or professional development activities available for librarians.

Library training participants gather for a sunny group photo.

After receiving the assessment report, the MOHSW asked I-TECH to assist in developing a training for people serving as health librarians at the ZHRCs and in pre-service health training institutions. I-TECH  readily agreed, and worked with I-TECH MOHSW’s own experienced librarian, other health-sector librarians in Tanzania, and an expert University of Washington health sciences librarian to develop a suite of course training materials.

In early 2011, over 15 librarians gathered at the Primary Healthcare Institute in Iringa for the pilot course—the first time this cadre had ever been brought together for training. It was also the first time many of the participants had met other librarians, and, for some, their first experience using the Internet. The course was facilitated by four experienced librarians; Mr. Haruna Hussein of MOHSW, Mr. Wilson Lendita of the Centre for Educational Development in Health Arusha (CEDHA), Mrs. Lina Lengaki of the National AIDS Control Programme, and Mrs. Neema Mosha of the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre. I-TECH helped to organize and implement the course, and supported the facilitators through coaching on training and facilitation.

During the week, participants worked on basic library management skills and on using the Internet to locate health information. They also explored the HINARI program and database, an agreement between the World Health Organization and major academic publishers that allows health institutions in limited-resource countries to access full-text peer reviewed documents and information free of charge. The librarians were enthusiastic and deeply engaged, and many left with a new understanding of their role. Most, intrigued by new options, requested additional training.

Mr. Paul, too, left  with a new perspective.  After the training, he explained the potential of ‘his’ facility to become a place not only to gather information, but to develop a useful and relevant collection of resource materials: “I thought previously a library is where you collect all the materials, old and new, and all materials you can put there,” he said thoughtfully. “Through discussions here about ‘weeding’ material; about what you can remove and retain; I have come to realize that in my library there are a lot of weeds . . . . [The books] may even be new, but they are not relevant. Because of this course I’ll be able to make some decisions to remove them.”

His colleagues shared this enthusiasm: “I’ve learned how to have a library that’s user-friendly in terms of tailoring it to the needs of users and making them feel it is theirs,” said one. Another put it more simply: “I now have new skills for running the library at my institute—I hope I will be a good librarian.”

Mrs. Lina Lengaki, of NACP, leads a training on the importance of cataloguing the library collection.

Fertile Ground

As the MOHSW moves forward with plans to strengthen libraries, leaders will still need to overcome obstacles, including competing priorities, staffing shortages, and a fledgling information infrastructure. Nevertheless, the training was a strong step towards improving the libraries as they currently exist. It also speaks to a wider recognition of  information management as a building block of an effective health system.

As Lauren Dunnington, an I-TECH training development specialist noted, “This project opens important discussion about how librarians, clinicians, and other health care workers can—or can’t—access information. This is a fertile and pertinent question as we work to strengthen health systems worldwide.”

And, as the 15 participants have begun put their new skills to work, the course is already helping students and scholars access more information. One participant, a tutor and library supervisor, has pledged to train other tutors at his institution to use the internet to locate health information. In a note of thanks, another, Mrs. Nimwindael Mbwambo, shared that she has begun to introduce colleagues to the new resources. “The session was really well conducted and is going to be extremely useful for us and also beneficial for our institution’s library at a large,” she wrote. “I have introduced the HINARI Database to the Principal and other tutors and now they are enjoying using it. Thank you so much.”


* The notion that librarians play an important role in turning “scientific knowledge into action” was eloquently articulated in the World Health Organization’s 2004 World Report on Knowledge for Better Health.

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