“I’m not sure if that’s what their job is”: consumer health information and emerging “healthwork” roles in the public library

Roma Harris, Flis Henwood, Audrey Marshall, Samantha Burdett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Members of the public are expected to assume increasing responsibility for their own health and 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 health information. 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
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)239-252
Number of pages14
JournalReference and User Services Quarterly
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2010

Bibliographical note

© 2010 The author(s) & American Library Association


  • Health information
  • public libraries
  • health intermediaries
  • health information seeking
  • ‘health work’


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