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Confessions of a hospice librarian

A stack of books

By Antony Porter

As a student with Thames Valley University and later the Open University, I was privileged to work in four hospice libraries intended for their staff. I say privileged because although I was rarely paid, receiving only my fares and midday meals, I learnt a great deal about hospices and palliative care.

Indeed, as Catholic Christian, I felt drawn to such libraries because they were like healthcare libraries but with ethical and religious dimensions. Furthermore, they covered such challenging topics as dying, death and bereavement, all then new to me!

And so I worked in the libraries of St. Joseph's Hospice in Hackney and Trinity Hospice in Clapham, plus two AIDS centres in Kensington, the Kobler Clinic and London Lighthouse. Major challenges were these had never been properly staffed, new posts could not be created and all funding went to patient care.

However, at these hospices, I was able to take free basic courses about cancer, AIDS and loss. Most memorable were lectures given by the late Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement. I was also evidently the first librarian to study the Open University’s “Death & Dying” course.

I later published a series of articles and letters concerning my various interests in hospice work, including those suggesting a central library of death studies, classification of grief and bereavement, an enquiry into organ transplantation and some proposals for a hospice ombudsman and even for hospice radio!

Curiously, hospice libraries, like patients’ libraries and monastic libraries, were in my experience rarely mentioned within the library books and journals to which I then had access. It all seemed an adventurous, if lonely path, especially as I often worked on my own and unsupervised!

Many problems soon appeared. St. Joseph’s bought expensive books but seemed unconcerned when these went missing. Furthermore, its library was the result of many hands, with the resultant inconsistencies in cataloguing and classification. A good example of what happens when a library is understaffed.

Regarding Trinity, I was asked to set up a library in an empty office that had a pile of books and journals dumped on the floor. I enjoyed the challenge and once it was up and running I welcomed enquiries from the overseas student nurses, many of whom were very polite and grateful!

Around this time I worked alone in a tiny AIDS library in the Kobler Clinic but remember little about it. By contrast, my final port of call was in a busy office at London Lighthouse where I was asked to sort out a wealth of leaflets, press cuttings, pictures, articles and other writings, including those of the patients.

All these libraries were not without their hazards. In none was I ever given advice on health and safety. In those days before the widespread use of mobiles, some did not even provide a phone. Nor was there any advice about making complaints or suggestions.

I had to put up notices when nurses began to use one library as a dining room. Then a lady fell fast asleep in the corner armchair I had provided. Others sometimes made loud phone calls, even revealing confidential patient information. On top of all this, books and journals sadly often went missing.

Since then these and other hospice libraries have come and gone, despite society’s growing awareness of the needs of dying people, their relatives and friends. I still think that a central resource centre for the nation is what is needed but who would ever pay for it?


Photo by Jason Wong



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