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The Librarian Reserve Corps: fighting COVID-19 with mediated information

Librarians have always been at the forefront of information needs and have provided critical assistance to patrons, public officials, and decision makers during uncertain times. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception and has created an urgent, unprecedented demand for access to knowledge that is accurate, reliable, and timely.

The Librarian Reserve Corps (LRC) was founded in March 2020 to meet this demand. Over 100 volunteers worldwide have signed up to partner with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Outbreak Alert & Response Network (GOARN) and have ensured that health and science professionals have access to the latest information during the COVID-19 pandemic via mediated literature searching services.

We asked four librarians, who are in different countries around the world, about their experiences as volunteers of the Librarian Reserve Corps:

Please tell us about yourself! Which library you are currently working with?

Jane Orbell-Smith: I am a sole-practitioner professional health librarian working as the Libraries’ Manager for Redcliffe Hospital Library and the Caboolture Hospital Library. The Libraries serve health staff based at the two hospitals plus the small rural hospital, Kilcoy Hospital, and the Woodford Correctional Facility. Our services are part of the Metro North Hospital and Health Service based in South East Queensland. It is the largest public health service in Australia.

Denise Smith: I am from Ontario, Canada and I currently work with the Health Sciences Library at McMaster University, which services the Faculty of Health Sciences at the university as well as the Hamilton Health Sciences hospitals—particularly the McMaster University Medical Centre, home to the McMaster Children’s Hospital.

I have been a librarian for almost eight years now and have been working as a health sciences librarian since the end of 2014. I have absolutely no background in anything health or science related. My undergraduate degree was a BA with combined honours in both Early Modern Studies (think 16th-18th art, literature, and philosophy) and International Development Studies. Before I became a librarian, I wanted to to work with international development organizations, particularly in Latin America where the remnants of Spanish colonialism are still very prominent today. The only trouble was that my international development degree didn’t give me the hard skills the kinds of organizations I was interested in working for were looking for. So, I went to library school and somehow, through a combination of good fortune and effort became a health sciences librarian!

“I am one of those librarians who had a career change in my forties and am happy that I did! … I am passionate about lifelong learning.”

Joanne Doucette: I am a native Bostonian who is currently working at MCPHS University (formally Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences) in Boston, which is a moderate-sized health sciences school with approximately 7000 students on three campuses. We have offerings in most health science careers but do not have an associated medical school. We are located across the street from Harvard Medical School and surrounded by hospitals.

I have a background in medical physics having worked at Massachusetts General Hospital for almost twenty years in radiation oncology. I am one of those librarians who had a career change in my forties and am happy that I did! I hold an undergraduate degree in Physics, and three master’s degrees in Computer Science, Speech Language Pathology, and Library and Information Science. I am passionate about lifelong learning. The favorite part of my job is working with graduate students on their research projects, helping them to find comprehensive, quality information.

Isatou N’Jie: I currently work as a Clinical Librarian at the North East London NHS Foundation Trust (NELFT). I have enjoyed a career in the library and information services spanning over 30 years. I have worked in different library information sectors including academic, commercial research and development, law, and health. I graduated from Loughborough University, UK. I am a Chartered Librarian and a Qualified Assessor, working with the Chartered Institute of Library Information Professionals (CILIP). I am also a Faculty member at the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH) World Congress, 2021.

What has been your experience as a volunteer with the LRC, and what is the most exciting thing about your work with the organization?

Jane: I worked on the initial WHO project and indexed hundreds of records. It was great to be involved as I could fit it in around my own work and the time difference meant I was able to pick up work that others couldn’t. The role played by those who set up the programme can not be underestimated; it was a brave step, especially when the United States government withdrew funding from the WHO.

“Collaboratively we were able to build some of the first validated search strings for COVID-19 literature and that was so special to be part of.”

Denise: Having had a long-term interest in serving internationally, when the LRC called for volunteers, ignoring the call was not an option for me. I finally had a strong set of hard skills I could bring to the table to serve an international need for structured, reliable access to important health information during a global pandemic. The most exciting thing about working with the LRC has been working with librarians and informationists I never would have come into contact with otherwise. The world of librarianship is a small one, so expanding that beyond my current network of colleagues was a fantastic opportunity to learn from others. I was also really excited to build a program where the folks at WHO and GOARN could request, and rely on, strong systematic literature searches. Collaboratively we were able to build some of the first validated search strings for COVID-19 literature and that was so special to be part of.

Joanne: When the COVID pandemic started, I really wanted to contribute to fighting the virus. I thought about volunteering for clinical trials but fortunately found the LRC where I could make a difference without becoming ill! At first, I joined the Rapid Review team because I have participated in many systematic reviews. However, the response time required was too difficult for me because of work commitments. I was offered the opportunity in May to do research for WHO epidemiologists locating articles and reports on Seroprevalence of COVID-19. Seroprevalence is a measure of how many people in a country, region, organization have been exposed to the virus by measuring antibodies that they may have developed.

I love this experience because it has given me the opportunity to learn more about epidemiology, immunology and how viruses work. I was initially joined by another librarian who was searching the grey literature and now we are up to a team of three librarians and two epidemiologists. The actual most exciting moment for me was when I was on a Zoom call with WHO in Geneva! The big time! I love collaborating with people from all over the world. The current team is composed of Bradley Long in Pennsylvania, Emily Cukier in Chicago, Anthony Nardone in London, and Ketevan Glonti in Malta. We are a good team and meet every other week to discuss any issues that might have come up.

“The most exciting thing about volunteering with the LRC has been the opportunity to collaborate on a global scale with over 100 professional librarians from different continents, and supporting evidence-based decision making at critical time to help the fight against the pandemic.”

Isatou: I joined the LRC Rapid Evidence Review Search Workgroup as a volunteer following a call out on the EAHIL-LIST (European Association for Health Information and Libraries) discussion forum in April 2020. As volunteers, we provide a range of expertise and critical skills to support the public health emergency responders with evidence-based information at the point of need. The volunteering roles range from conducting rapid evidence review searches, literature indexing, comprehensive systematic review searching, administrative tasks, developing partnerships and collaborations, and database validation studies.

The most exciting thing about volunteering with the LRC has been the opportunity to collaborate on a global scale with over 100 professional librarians from different continents, and supporting evidence-based decision making at critical time to help the fight against the pandemic. Sharing search strings and techniques with the group of volunteers has enhanced my skills, knowledge, and expertise in evidence searching to better support the public health teams I work with at NELFT.

Involvement with the LRC has increased my understanding of the important work the WHO does in responding to public health emergencies. My professional network has expanded exponentially creating new opportunities and professional growth. I have gained great satisfaction from the work in helping the responders achieve positive results in their work and research.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your experience as a volunteer?

Jane: The biggest challenge was getting used to the different software we used during the programme and that initially a lot could not be automated. This was fixed in later iterations of the programme and made work much less repetitive and labour intensive.

Denise: The most challenging aspect of this experience has been people power. And it wasn’t because we didn’t have enough people. We had plenty of volunteers but we are all working from different time zones, had different levels of availability to commit to this work, and essentially had to build an entire online service without ever having met one another. We had to reconcile our expectations with respect to what support for WHO would look like and be clear in communicating our ability to participate or support the work. It was an entirely new way of working for most of us and in additional to the learning curve, the work came together at lightning speed.

Speaking for myself, I met, planned, and communicated with the co-directors almost exclusively over email because attending online meetings was unproductive for me (I had a four-year-old in the home with me due to lockdown and they really liked to sit on my lap during meetings… and ONLY during meetings). Anyone who works for an academic library will tell you that new services and procedures take time to create, develop, and implement. The fact that we came together and put this together in weeks, is still unbelievable to me and, in my opinion, needs to be applauded. We didn’t act quickly at the cost of quality either. We worked together quickly and diligently to offer a service we were all very proud of.

“The work of the LRC has illuminated the important role librarians play in public health emergencies.”

Joanne: I guess making the time to keep up with the research each week has been a bit challenging. I dedicate part of my weekend to this research every week. I am a very busy librarian, but it is important to take the time for this work can provide relief for WHO librarians who must be pretty overwhelmed by now. Communication between group members is also very important. We are all respectful of each other which means listening as well as making your point of view known. It can be a delicate balance for me. Finally, time zone planning for meetings needs to be a big consideration so that no one has to stay awake or get up early for a meeting. All these challenges are nothing compared to what individuals are experiencing with COVID worldwide.

Isatou: The most challenging aspect was a feeling of apprehension at the beginning because I had not done anything similar before. Responding to search requests within 2 to 48 hours meant I had to quickly learn how to respond to open tickets, respond to comments from the requesters if there were any, rapidly carry out the evidence searches following the LRC protocols, and submit the results in a timely manner. Working full time meant that I could only volunteer at weekends. I was already familiar with using some of the LibApps tools which made it an easy transition for me to understand the LibAnswers platform.

The work of the LRC has illuminated the important role librarians play in public health emergencies. The experiences I have gained through volunteering with the LRC have been invaluable and I have found it to be an extremely rewarding experience.

If you want to find out more information about the LRC and how you can get involved, please visit the LRC website and follow them on Twitter @LibReserveCorps.

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