Knowledge management and health

Blue Trunk Libraries


A dearth of health information

Many university libraries in Africa suffer from a shortage of medical books and journals. Very often the only ones available are several decades old and covered with a thick layer of dust because, for good reason, no one consults them. Often the only useful information in these libraries is a collection of theses which, in contrast, are frequently consulted and copied. Without a budget, libraries have no books or journals, but they do have readers. The thirst for knowledge is very real, even though in comparison with other needs it is wrongly judged "superfluous".

Outside the major cities, the situation is even gloomier. Health professionals who wish to keep up to date have scant resources. Books are rare in health centres or hospitals. Those university libraries which do have some information resources often lack the means, for a multitude of reasons, of disseminating the information they possess: a limited supply of paper for the photocopiers, unreliable postal services, lack of personnel or ignorance of needs. Lastly, university libraries frequently have no mandate to carry out this task as they are directed by the Ministry of Education, whereas health centres are directed by the Ministry of Health, responsibility and communications being therefore strictly compartmentalized.

A project based on several observations:

  • In its technical cooperation activities, WHO has given priority to developing district health services.
  • Improving community health services depends to a great extent on training and on updating the knowledge of health personnel.

Following this policy, WHO and a number of other publishers (more often English speaking than French speaking) have produced numerous manuals intended for district health centres. Unfortunately, the works in question often reach only a few ministries and lucky individuals whose names happen to be on the right distribution list.

The work of librarians in many African countries is hampered by lack of funds and resources, and by the low status of their profession. In addition, their activity is limited to the university or institution where they work. It is out of the question, for the reasons cited above, to imagine they might provide services to remote health centres.

Lastly, African district health workers as a whole rarely have access to books, so that reading, as a means of acquiring information, is not among their habits or work patterns.

The basic approach adopted by the Blue Trunk Libraries is to include the skills and know-how of librarians in a ready-to-use documentation module, appropriate for health districts. It focuses on disseminating the information contained in the Blue Trunk Library within the health community, using a local person trained specially for the task. The Blue Trunk Library does not replace continuing education. Its mission is rather to provide validated information to support training activities, health promotion and community information in peripheral health centres.

The Blue Trunk Libraries project makes it possible to establish a network to disseminate medical and health information that reaches out beyond academic and university circles. The distribution of publications and documents is often the weak link in the best-intended development projects. Everyone has experience of excellent manuals that have remained unknown and unused because they have never reached their target audience, for lack of distribution channels. The Blue Trunk Library operation has defined a target, the health districts; publications have been chosen for this target; a workable mode of distribution to peripheral health centres has been selected and an informal network set up through which health information will continue to circulate. Undoubtedly, it is the role of librarians to disseminate information further than commercial outlets can reach, to places where the need is so great.