Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

"I'm Not Sure If That's What Their Job Is": Consumer Health Information and Emerging "Healthwork" Roles in the Public Library

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

"I'm Not Sure If That's What Their Job Is": Consumer Health Information and Emerging "Healthwork" Roles in the Public Library

Article excerpt

Members of the public are expected to assume increasing responsibility for their own health and to keep themselves informed about health issues. Here we describe a study of library users' and staff members' expectations about the public library's role in supporting citizens' "healthwork." We conducted our research in a public library in the United Kingdom that operates on a model of patron self-service. Data were gathered through in-depth interviews with library patrons and staff members as well as a written survey of patrons who had visited the library because of a health concern. Our findings suggest that the library's users regard the public library as a highly trusted source of hearth reformation. The majority of surveyed users were in search of books relevant to their health concern, and more than half were able to locate what they needed on their own. While generally self-sufficient, some of the survey respondents as well as those who took part in the interviews indicated that they had consulted library staff for help, although they appeared uncertain about the level of reference support they should expect. Members of the library's reference desk staff who took part in the interviews expressed frustration over policies that limit the time available to support patron's inquiries, and many lacked training, particularly in online health information resources. The results raise important questions about the emerging "geography of responsibilities" in health-informing work arising from changing information technology and new emphases in health policy.


As governments and private sector organizations look to control health-related costs, citizens face growing pressure to take responsibility for their own health. An important element of this responsibility involves staying informed about health matters, one of the tasks described by Mykhalovskiy, McCoy, and Bresalier as "healthwork," which they describe as "the broad terrain of everyday/everynight activities through which people look after their health." (1) In a recent book, Wyatt, Harris, and Wathen discuss the complex and shifting "middle ground" of health information work and introduce the term health "info(r) mediary" to describe "the various configurations of people and technologies that perform the mediating work involved in enabling health information seekers to locate, retrieve, understand, cope with and use the information for which they are looking." (2)

The purpose of the research presented here is to explore this middle ground in the context of a public library--specifically, the roles and expectations of patrons and staff with respect to the library's role in enabling citizens' health information work.


Irvine explains what is expected of people in the current health care climate:

   As health consumers, people are meant
   to develop new relations with health care
   providers, policy makers and themselves.
   At the level of practical conduct they are
   admonished not to act unthinkingly and
   not to defer to the sovereign will of health
   care providers. Rather they are encouraged
   to seek out information, for example, finding
   out the side-effects of prescribed medicine,
   consult books for guidance on how to cope
   with illness, and investigate and evaluate the
   available medical services. (3)

There is considerable evidence that many members of the lay public comply with this expectation and are active health information seekers, often relying on the Internet to locate information for themselves and on behalf of others. Reports from the United States, for example, suggest that 80 percent of "connected" citizens have searched online for information about health topics. (4) In Canada, a random telephone survey of rural residents indicated that of the nearly 75 percent who had looked for health information in the previous year, 60 percent had searched online. …

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