Top Tips for running a Virtual Library Knowledge Information Service: Part 1 by Matt Holland

This is the first in a series of 4 postings by Matt Holland, Librarian for the NW Ambulance Service NHS Trust, outlining his top tips for running a Virtual Library Service.


Defining terms – the Virtual Library Service: The view presented in this series of postings is that the Virtual Library Knowledge Information Service [VLK/IS] is a positive development and a model for future service development of some library services in the health care sector. It’s definition is problematic, however, because it is most easily described by what it is not. The virtual library knowledge / information service is like any other library service in many aspects but it has no physical presence, no buildings and no printed books or journals.  The argument made here is that this is an advantage, creating an agile, innovative and forward looking service. In other words it is more than the absence of a library building. It represents a different way of thinking and behaving. This is an expansion of an article originally published in CILIP Update (Holland 2013).

The word virtual is often used to describe a digital representation of something that should be there but isn’t, the virtual librarian instead of a real librarian. Websites invite us to take a tour of the virtual library. Virtual reality is a simulation of reality or a simulation of an imagined reality. However, there just isn’t another term that conveys the aspect of a library service that is delivered using networked communication and resources. In the context in which it is used here, it does not mean a simulation of service or an imaginary service. It is both virtual and real at the same time.

Then there is the aspect of service. The virtual library may be used as a term that recreates the physical content of a library in digital space. A virtual library service is much more than that, because it delivers a planned and coordinated service developed by a real Librarian who chooses the best way to communicate with users which may be face to face contact, or by phone, or using social media or e-mail.

Where is your library? The final part of the puzzle of nomenclature.  The answer to this question of course is that it doesn’t matter.  It is an office, a table in a café or a motorway service station. The virtual library service is where the librarian is and where the users are.  This may be the same physical space or it may not. The full meaning of this statement should become clear by the time you reach the end of this series of postings.


Some specific background: Some specific background is needed to understand the evolution of the thinking which underpins the construction of the virtual library service proposed in this post. The idea is based on the experience of creating the North West Ambulance Service NHS Trust, Library & Information Service [NWAS LIS]. Formed as a service, sans or without a physical library, in March 2009 as a joint venture between the Trust and the North West’s Health Care Libraries Unit [HCLU]. The NWAS LIS made the decision to avoid creating a physical collection and instead to embrace being virtual, working through the web, mobile phones, one-to-one meetings and group training sessions reaching across 100 locations in the North West.

This made sense at the time and still makes sense now because it answered, or rather didn’t answer the question of where to put the Library, in an organization short of office space and where most of the staff were mobile for most of the time. In addition it has over 100 individual service points, and three regional headquarters spread across the North West of England from Crewe to Carlisle.

NWAS NHS Trust may represent an extreme form of organization, however, the characteristics of the population it serves will be familiar from user surveys of NHS health care library communities. Dispersed communities of users at multiple service points, a range of professional groups engaged in CPD and higher education. Different needs depending on roles such as clinicians, allied health professionals and management roles. A high degree of mobility among staff and many staff who access services on the move or from home. Most queries that come in via e-mail are now “sent form my (i)Phone”. At first glance not all these characteristics are helped by having a virtual library service. A good example might be working in a hospital site and needing a quiet place to study. However, with a virtual library service mind set, any quiet place is a place to study, including the Library. In the main any user community that is remote from the library and mobile with mobile devices benefits from the thinking about virtual library services.

It also represented a coincidence of timing in the arc of the move from the print to the digital. All the core journals in the area of Emergency and Urgent Care are available electronically. NICE Evidence Search [formerly NHS Evidence] provides a coherent backbone to any virtual library service offering and Open Athens [formerly NHS Athens] makes networked access possible from any internet connected computer.  eBooks are now a viable alternative to print, although some resistance by publishers rooted in the print era has created challenges in collection development. All this is well known to those familiar with the health care information landscape in England. In short the virtual library service was possible as well as desirable.


Networks and the Virtual Library Service: How do we envisage the virtual library service? The metaphor we use to explain it is important because it informs all our actions. Examples for reimaging the library in digital space are many, but mostly recreate a digital version of the real thing. Virtual hands reaching out to take a virtual book form the shelves, eLibrary services that ask users to check out eBooks to their own digital books shelves. All miss the point. These services are recreating the past for the future with many of the limitations and few of the benefits.

The best metaphor is to imagine the library as networks of users, with users as vertices and transactions and communications as the edges. Embedded in our network will be highly connected/influential individuals, or the long tail. Networks may be connected or exist in comparative isolation from each other. The aim of the virtual library service is to adopt strategies that build connections to and between our networks. Key tasks are to understand the extent of our networks, our user communities, and who are the highly connected individuals. To build through the quality and quantity of our communications and transactions with users edges or links between them.  Though the implementation of our services more connections exist and a more robust the service emerges. Word of mouth and recommendation to colleagues are the most effective tools to build the virtual library services and messages travel easily through dense highly connected networks.

We should acknowledge that  these things are relevant to all library services, but they are especially important for the virtual library services. Where as the manager of a library service with chairs and desks might be an expert in managing materials, the manager of the virtual library service needs to be an expert at communicating with users. Their task is to make the virtual real and visible in the minds of users. This is a theme that will recur in the description of the ten characteristics of a virtual library service.


Matt Holland, Librarian, NWAS NHS Trust
Mobile: 07747456736,

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