Medical libraries in the Philippines

As I said earlier, I recently visited the Philippines. I visited three medical libraries, and also met with a group of medical librarians to learn more about medical libraries in the country.
The Philippines is unique in Asia, thanks to the historical links with Spain and the USA, both of which wielded colonial authority in the past. The population is largely Christian (mainly Catholic) and English is widely spoken, being the medium of instruction for much of higher education. In many ways it is a highly developed country (education and healthcare services are well-respected, modelled on the USA systems) though it is by no means a rich country.
I had expected to find that medical librarians in the Philippines would have strong links to the profession in the USA. I was surprised therefore to discover that two British medical librarians had played a decisive role in the development of the profession there. In 1986 Nicky Whitsed and Roy Tabor contributed to a workshop for medical librarians that was sponsored by the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development and by the British Council. This seeded the idea to create a national association for medical librarians and subsequently MAHLAP (the Medical and Health Librarians Association of the Philippines) was officially formed in 1988. I met members of the MAHLAP committee and was charmed when they presented me with a gift to mark my visit. It is now hanging on my office wall:

MAHLAP has 150 personal members plus associate and institutional members. Although many members are in Manila there is a regional structure too, with focal persons in each region. Members work in hospital libraries, university libraries and other specialist libraries. There is an annual conference and a regular newsletter, and various activities in support of books, libraries and librarians.
I asked what were the biggest challenges that medical librarians face in the Philippines and the answers sounded very familiar: sustaining resources in the face of low budgets and high prices; low pay; de-professionalisation. Though that sounds a depressing list of woes, the people I met were still cheerful and resourceful in finding ways to serve their users. They were interested to build links with libraries in the UK, to share information and experience.
I’ve already written a litle about my visit to PCHRD – the Philippines’ answer to the MRC. It has been very influential in developing both the research base and research support infrastructure, including medical libraries. Its database of Filipino medical research Herdin has about 40,000 publications and is building profiles of researchers and institutions. PCHRD does not have really a medical library but it is an important part of the medical library network.
The WHO Western Pacific Regional Office (WPRO) is based in Manila and has a modern well-funded library. I was pleased to meet the officer in charge of the library, Julius Dizon, and his team.

They have access to a good collection of electronic journals, funded by WHO, and are involved in a number of projects, most notably the WPR Index Medicus (WPRIM). Part of the Global Health Library, WPRIM is an index of medical journals published across the Western Pacific Region. The Philippine component of WPRIM comes from Herdin. Apart from their rich collections, two things in particular impressed me about this library:

  1. it is open to any researcher or government employee from Member States of the WHO Western Pacific Region – always good to see such an open door policy
  1. it has a good collection of Lonely Planet travel guides – a sign of the amount of travelling WHO staff have to do

My final visit was to the University of the Philippines Manila (UPM) Medical Library. The University of the Philippines is a huge institution with 11 separate campuses and an open university to boot . It has just passed its centenary, though I think only the Manila branch dates that far back. UPM is in the heart of midtown Manila and has the buzz of a city centre University campus. There are separate colleges for Medicine, Nursing, Allied Health, Pharmacy, Dentistry and Public Health, and each of these has its own library. An integrated library system makes it possible to search across all library catalogues.
The Medical Library has a limited budget and therefore has few journal subscriptions. Some online journals ae made available through the MD Consult service. Open Access journals and journals with free backfiles are popular. Some books are purchased but many also come as gifts from alumni, particularly those working in the USA. The library has an interesting collection on Philippine medical history and also much grey literature (theses, reports, lectures etc). Study space and an Internet cafe are also provided.
In a comment on an earlier post of mine, Cristian Bodo talked of the problems of access to the literature in developing nations. It is ironic that these days access is in some ways easier in the very poorest nations than it is in those not on the bottom rung. The WHO’s HINARI programme provides free access to journals from several publishers, but only to institutions in countries with very low GDP. Richer countries are not eligible, as explained in a recent blog post elsewhere . Another initiative I’m vaguely aware of is PERii (Programme for the Enhancement of Research Information) – a program run by INASP (International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications).
The librarians I met in Manila were all enthusiastic, professional and dedicated, but frustrated by the problems of providing a service with limited resources. This problem is not limited to the Philippines but doesn’t have an easy answer.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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3 Responses to Medical libraries in the Philippines

  1. Maxine Clarke says:

    Sounds a fascinating trip, Frank. From what I hear, the problems in the UK are not dissimilar. Do you get to travel the world all the time in your job, sizing up medical research libraries all over the world?

  2. Frank Norman says:

    Maxine – it was fascinating. Unfortunately “sizing up medical research libraries all over the world” is not in my job description – this was just a holiday (funded by me) in which I spent a little time visiting some libraries. But if you ever hear of a job like that do let me know!

  3. Maxine Clarke says:

    Ah, I think this syndrome sounds rather familiar, Frank! But I will keep my eyes peeled and my ear close to the ground.

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