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Express Outreach Award Highlights: Text-A-Librarian at San Francisco General Hospital

by Joy Graham, MLS, AHIP
Manager, Barnett Briggs Medical Library
San Francisco General Hospital

One of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve had in my library career was spending an 8-hour day shadowing a nurse in one of the patient care units at my hospital. I learned so many things, including that I should wear comfortable shoes and be ready to run!

In addition to that, I learned that nurses in our hospital do not have time to look things up on the Internet. Even assuming that they knew where to find the SFGH library web site, the few computers on the unit are constantly being used by nurses for charting. The telephones on the units are unavailable too, either ringing or in use by someone else. I concluded that if nurses were to communicate with the library, it had to be by a means other than email or telephone. That’s when the idea of a library-sponsored text messaging service was conceived and how Text-A-Librarian @ SFGH came into being.

Text-A-Librarian Banner: 'Try it now!'We received outreach award funding from the RML, with the objective of determining if nurses and other hospital staff could be enticed to text their questions to the library. We also encouraged patients and their family members to text us. We told them we would answer questions about the library or about health-related topics and that we would try to respond to their question within 15 minutes during our regular business hours. If the answer was a long one, we would email them the information or send them a URL with the needed information.

We suspected that many staff had no idea the hospital even had a library and that offering a library-based texting service would get their attention. We were right! They seemed to be surprised that a library was offering such a cool service, and they gave it a try. Or rather they gave it a try as long as we were publicizing it. During times when we were promoting it heavily with signs, business cards, informational tables in the cafeteria, posters on shuttle buses, announcements at meetings and classes, etc., we received an average of one question per day. When we reduced the publicity, the questions slacked off. Over a ten-month period, we received a total of 115 questions.

To help solve the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” problem, we applied for and received additional funding to purchase promotional items imprinted with the Text-A-Librarian short code (66746) and keyword (sfgh). We chose pens, post-it-notes, nylon tote bags, note cubes, and refrigerator magnets, and distributed them liberally at every opportunity.

You might think that 115 questions is not a lot of response for all the work and money that went into the project. And I would say you would be right if the number of questions was our only measure of success; however, we did receive additional, qualitative benefits. The project gave our library staff an opportunity to work together to develop a new service, and we acquired new job skills in the process. I learned how to apply for outreach funding using our university’s online contracts and grants system. Our operations supervisor learned how to administer award funds in the university’s financial reporting system. Another staff member was in charge of staff education and created a wiki page where we could collaboratively figure out the best ways of handling incoming questions.

Perhaps most significantly, our Text-A-Librarian service has given the library heightened visibility throughout the hospital. It casts us as approachable, informal communicators, and as tech-savvy, eager service providers. One last piece of advice to those considering offering such a service is to undertake it only if you have sufficient staff to implement it and time and money to promote it. If you’d like more information, please text your question to 66746, and start your message with the keyword sfgh!

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