Case Study: Changing sectors – From law to the NHS by Cath Harris

There’s a perception within the Library and Information profession that it’s difficult to change sectors. However, the aim of every library and information service is essentially the same: to connect your users with the information they need to do their jobs; be successful in their studies; live their lives. The skills you develop as a library/information professional are highly transferable and working in different organisations can give you a broader view of the library and information landscape.

I joined Lancashire Care Foundation Trust six months ago, having spent the last seven years working in law firms. My previous role of Research Services Manager was very similar to what I am now doing in the NHS. I managed the Firm’s Research Team who provided ‘research’ support to the solicitors, trainee solicitors, paralegals etc., for whatever they needed to do their work (note: in this context research means desk research and not original scientific or academic research as in the healthcare sector!). Enquiries included searching for case law, trying to find similar past cases to the case your fee-earner was working on, usually to confirm whether or not the point they are trying to argue is going to be accepted or has a legal precedent. Researching a specific point of law could involve looking at cases, legislation and commentary. We did lots of company searches to find and retrieve company information. This included finding information on companies for mesothelioma cases to try and identify the correct defendant – not easy if the company was in operation in the 1950s/60s and could have long since changed names or been dissolved. Or we might be asked to search the medical literature to find information on a certain condition or, as an example, whether a head injury can exacerbate epilepsy, for the personal injury claims. We also answered enquiries on completely random subjects such as finding a calculation for how long it would take to siphon diesel out of a lorry tank using different widths of tubing (one of the more bizarre requests)!

The skills of database interrogation, information retrieval and assimilating information have prepared me well for healthcare literature searching in my current role. Of course there’s been a learning curve in getting to grips with the functionality of the databases, types of medical research literature and guidance, and medical terminology. But the core skills of being able to form an effective search, scan the results and quickly assimilate information are easily transferable to different databases and subject areas. Something that quickly became apparent to me, though not surprising, is that legal databases are more refined being commercial products and having millions of pounds invested in the development of them, and their functionality is sleeker and more (though not completely) seamless. This makes the job of both searching and enabling users to search and use the tools that bit easier. I find it’s not so straightforward in the healthcare sector and getting to grips with the NHS Core Content set up, multiple online journal platforms, Athens administration and link resolving is taking some getting used to.

Other duties in my previous role included supplier management, providing current awareness services, designing and delivering information skills training and inductions, marketing the service, IT troubleshooting the electronic resources and line management of the team. These duties and the skills involved are much the same in my current role. In a workplace library it’s all about encouraging and enabling your users to use the best resources available to them (and not rely on Wikipedia to make important decisions and judgments!). It means connecting your users to the information they need to do their jobs efficiently and effectively, making sure they know where to come for help, and doing your bit to make sure the service runs smoothly, adds value to the organisation and is cost effective.

The biggest difference I’ve noticed between the NHS and a law firm environment is of course organisational culture. Law firms are very formal commercial environments. Because of the way law firms are structured as a partnership they are also extremely hierarchical. I’m finding the NHS to be a lot more friendly and open, and although there are hierarchies here too so far I’m finding it easier to connect with people within the Trust. In terms of professional networking, there are networks of librarians in the legal sector and they have their own professional organisation, the British and Irish Association of Legal Librarians (BIALL). But because of the commercial and competitive constraints there isn’t the same level of collaboration or knowledge sharing. The LIHNN network is so welcoming and friendly and it’s really powerful in sharing innovation and best practice and enabling professional development. There’s a lot of very innovative and inspiring practice going on in the NHS and I find the network is very supportive and forward thinking. It’s been so lovely to become a part of this network and it’s already been so helpful to me in getting up to speed with the world of healthcare information.

As well as the legal and healthcare sectors, I have also previously worked for a management consultancy, a government department and a music college. This has given me contact and experience with lots of different types of information and the knowledge of where and how to find it. It’s given me experience of working for lots of different types of organisations and with different types of users. The result, I feel, is a broad view of the library and information sector and a wealth of experience to draw on. Although ultimately I think it’s good to specialise and develop an in-depth understanding of a particular sector, changing sectors is no bad thing.


Cath Harris
Information Services Librarian

Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust

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1 Response to Case Study: Changing sectors – From law to the NHS by Cath Harris

  1. lucyanderson says:

    Thanks for sharing this Cath 🙂

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