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British Medical Association Library Visit

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On 16th May 2012, London Health Libraries organised a visit to the British Medical Association
(BMA) library which is located in BMA House in Tavistock Square. Deputy librarian Fiona
Robertson was on hand to give us an insightful guided tour.
The library offers services to all BMA members – currently around 147,000, made up of medical
students, qualified doctors (including refugee doctors) and retired members. Fiona stressed that
although based in London, the library strives to offer a nationwide service, for example through
the free postal loans service which sends books to members throughout the UK, which can be
renewed for up to 15 months (3 months at a time).

General Impressions
In August 2007, BMA library moved from the Great Hall in BMA House into the current location
on the first floor in the right wing of the building. From looking at the photos of the old space
and the new, there were significant differences.

Turquoise shelves at the BMA libraryOrange seating in the BMA library

The new space lacks the grandeur of the old hall with its turquoise pillars, built for the
ceremonies of the Theosophical Society, who owned the building before the BMA, however with
its low ceiling, it has a modern relaxing feel. It is brightly lit, with bookshelves carrying on
the theme of the turquoise colours, and the library space dotted with comfortable seating, in a
matching palette of pale blue and orange hues. Fiona stated that the acoustics in the previous
spaces were terrible in the great hall, but in the new space, even when full, the space retains a
sense of quiet and calm.

Compared to the old hall, the new space is smaller, and during the move, the library cut a third
of its library staff and significantly reduced their stock. However the resulting stock take made
them realise the amount of unused stock in their library that was literally gathering dust.
Core service
Before the move, the library’s main priority was their document delivery service. At their height
they were dealing with 500 requests per day; from 2004 the numbers began to drop, it has now
tailed off to between 30-60 a day. We were taken down to the basement and saw the scanning
machines. It is the cleanest library basement I have ever seen!

The organisation itself had felt that the library service would get smaller and perhaps peter out
eventually, but in fact, library usage has increased since the relocation of the library. The move
gave the library the opportunity to refocus their services. This includes:

● A small but core selection of stock
● A stronger customer focus
● Free literature searches
● A welcoming and quiet environment for members to use

This refocus seems to have worked, with the library seeing increases in the number of visitors
and the number of loans being issued, the latter increasing by 27% over the last year. Moving
to a space that was more fit for purpose may have contributed to this. Currently BMA members
have started a petition for the library to be open on Saturdays as well. The library will soon be
going through a second phase of development, where the staff offices will be moved out of the
currently library space, to make room for more quiet study areas.

“People place a premium on a quiet place to study.” Fiona Robertson

Like with many other libraries, there has been a move to offering more e-resources, and to have
more of a web and social media presence. Members can renew their books online or by text, as
well as by phone, and the librarians are on Twitter and Facebook. Moving to the front page of
the organisation’s website may have also helped their visibility to users, and in a redesign of the
BMA website, there are plans to put a link to the BMA library on every web page. This indicates
an awareness in importance of the library service for the organisation and its members.
One interesting thing that they’ve found, is that age is no indicator for resource preference.
Some of the older members prefer e-books and online journals, while medical students are as
likely to want an print version as they are an e-book version of a resource, all depending on
the individual. For the library, this means that it is important to maintain both print and online
resources.

Summary
From the 1.5 hour tour, we could see that the library was a pleasant and inviting space. Fiona
was most welcoming and on hand to answer all our questions; at the end of the visit she kept
us supplied with a great selection of teas and cookies. It was a rewarding visit and generated
interesting discussions amongst the visitors.

Written by Hilary Garrett and Ka-Ming Pang

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