Health information in public libraries in the Netherlands

Interest in medical information and heavy use of medical encyclopaedias in public libraries is the case in several countries, for instance in the Netherlands.

In order to meet the requirements of a society in which costs for medicine and health care increase for various reasons, it is important to keep a balance between reasonable health care for all and cost effective measures. In the Netherlands the question was raised as to which role libraries can play in relation to health care and informed citizens and patients?

As a response to the fact that at least 55% of people with questions on health and self-help visited the public library and hoped to find answers there, several public libraries set up Health Information Points. In 1998 a national pilot project was initiated with ten public libraries pioneering various forms of information services. The shift of focus within the medical sector from excessive regulation of services to a more patient-driven and demandbased health care had given patients a stronger position in medical treatment and decision-making. Part of this new paradigm is to inform people about their rights as patients and their right to information about their health, diagnosis and proposed treatment. Patients have become more empowered and require better information services. Citizens in general need to have access to social and community information in order to orientate themselves in relation to health questions. Public libraries can provide such basic information and support specialised health services.

In a health information point all information and materials, which are available in the library, are concentrated physically and presented in an attractive way. The collection includes traditional materials such as encyclopaedia, books, magazines and brochures.

Furthermore new media like cd-roms and selected digital sources on the Internet are included. People can sit and study anonymously. They can also ask for help: to find information, to find answers or to find a reliable address for advice. The librarians in the front office have had training in health databases searching; they know medical jargon and the health care network. Innovative and important is the co-operation with the local/regional health institutions. In order to inform various groups of the general public about old and new health-related topics, the libraries have set up series of lectures and structured regular exhibitions. In the Dutch system, organisations are willing to pay to reach their target groups through the library facilities, they can for example book time to give a lecture, keep office hours or arrange exhibitions in the library.

The public libraries in Zoetermeer, Rotterdam, Duiven, Doetinchem,Winterswijk, Zutphen and Heerlen were all taking part in the project. The level of services varies, for example in the region of eastern Gelderland, all libraries involved have staff trained by provincial specialists and a doctor. The four larger libraries, Duiven, Doetinchem, Winterswijk, Zutphen, even have domain specialists. They have also developed an interactive virtual health desk (, a kind of parallel to SMIL.

At national level, the Netherlands Public Library Association have contacted the national players within the field of health care and arranged training and study of various health information systems. Furthermore they have published a handbook on setting up health information services in libraries and a cd with all necessary addresses of health care institutions and patient organisations. And finally the public library portal will be extended with health information and make use of the various local and regional projects as described above.

This text is based on an article by Marian Koren, Netherlands Public Library Association. The whole article can be found at

Adviser, Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority