Introducing subject guides in a specialist library and archive service

HLG Nursing Bulletin Vol 36 (2)

Caroline Lynch
Information Literacy Specialist
Royal College of Nursing
20 Cavendish Square
London W1G 0RN
Twitter: @caro_lyn123  

This article outlines the implementation of online library subject guides at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) including development, current progress and way forward. The guides were developed by the Library and Archive Services (LAS) team with input from RCN member nursing communities and key staff including nurse experts, communications and IT. They were integrated within the implementation of a new web site for the organisation. 47 subject guides have been published providing access to key resources, books and journals on nursing topics. The guides have been positively evaluated and further guides are planned. The project has strengthened links between the LAS team, and RCN nursing communities. It has provided RCN members with improved access to information about nursing specialities and key nursing topics.


The RCN is the world’s largest nursing union and professional body. It represents more than 435,000 nurses, student nurses, midwives and health care assistants in the UK and internationally. Our members work in a range of health care specialties and settings in the NHS and independent sectors. We also have members based overseas, and members who are retired.

The subject guides project began in 2015 led by Library and Archive Services (LAS). Caroline Lynch (Information Literacy Specialist) was the project lead and Anna Semmens (Library and Archive Services, Joint Manager) was the project sponsor.

The aim was to provide our members with subject access to information to support their nursing practice and CPD. We aimed to produce one online subject guide related to each RCN forum subject area.  Forums are communities of RCN members working in a similar nursing speciality. We also planned guides about broader career related topics and subjects identified as priorities for the organisation and its members.

The guides were planned as online tools providing access to electronic sources of information including e-books and e-journals. As our members are based across the UK and abroad a digital first approach was chosen to meet their needs. Print resources were used only when they were considered essential to a topic we were unable to purchase electronic access. 


Subject guides used by other organisations were reviewed for best practice including several university library guides and the Kings Fund online ‘Reading rooms’. They are commonly used in universities, usually providing easy access to resources students need for their courses including key books, database and journals. They are less used by specialist and professional body libraries.

The project was discussed with internal stakeholders including the Head of Nursing, professional leads (RCN leads for specific areas of nursing), and the RCN IT and Communications teams. It took place when the RCN was implementing a new web site. The project lead and sponsor met with the developers and discussed what we wanted to achieve. We worked with them to agree a subject guide template suitable for our audience that would be fully integrated in the new web site.

A pilot guide was developed by the project lead around the topic of revalidation. It was loaded to the test web site and provided a model for other subject guides and an example to show stakeholders.


Library subject guides were written by Information Assistants and Information Specialists within the LAS. A process for developing them was provided by the project lead. This included:

  • Contacting the relevant professional lead and forum for initial discussion
  • Identifying key resources, books, journals and archive material from our collections
  • Suggesting items for purchase by the library
  • Creating library discovery (Summon) searches for books and journal articles on relevant topics
  • Contacting RCN libraries in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales for advice about resources specific to those countries
  • Formatting within house style
  • Sending draft list to professional lead and forum contacts for any further comment /review before publishing on the site

Final selection of resources was by the library author taking account of all input received, selection guidance provided by the project lead, and RCN writing for the web guidance. Items suggested by forums and professional leads were purchased for our collection, including two online journals and several eBooks.

Guides were uploaded to the website by three LAS staff. The first library subject guide (Revalidation) was published when the new RCN website went live in December 2015. Subject guides were published throughout 2016 at a rate of 3-4 a month. 47 are now available at: See Appendix 1 for a list of the guides published.

To publicise the subject guides LAS attended nine RCN forum events, speaking to 370 members. We promoted them to staff at regional team meetings. Bookmarks were produced and given out at a range of events. The guides were promoted on Twitter from @RCNLibraries.  We asked forums and professional leads to share them with their members. 

Format overview

The guides provide:

  • A taster of some of the RCN Library and Archive resources available related to a subject
  • Details of some of key resources, books and journals
  • Searches for books and articles on key topics. These conduct a live database (Summon) search and the information retrieved is always up to date
  • Areas to explore further including our exhibitions, historical and archive collections, learning related games.

Figures 1 to 4 from the Sepsis guide illustrate the format used.


From January – December 2016 subject guides received 44,060 unique page views (60,492 page views). Page views grew each quarter as more subject guides were published. The top 5 Subject guides with most unique page views in 2016 were:

  • Revalidation
  • Advanced nursing practice
  • Healthcare assistants and assistant practitioners
  • Mentorship
  • Infection prevention and control

Average time on a page was 1 minute 31 seconds which suggests that people are engaging with the content. Positive feedback has been received from forums, professional leads and other RCN staff:

Having up to date literature which is forum specific will be really helpful to us as advisors (RCN professional lead)

I have had a look at the subject guide and found it useful, easy to navigate and most helpfully uncluttered with good access points to journals and books, including the eBooks. (Forum committee member)

These are really really good and have had a lot of interest on our Facebook page! (Forum committee member)

Library staff have received positive feedback from RCN members and staff. Users have commented that they find the subject guides easy to use and particularly like the links to eBooks.

Library staff use the subject guides to answer enquiries in the Library and by phone and web chat. They signpost users to them so they can browse and select resources for themselves. Links to subject guides are include with literature searches sent to RCN members and staff.

Subject guides were positively evaluated in the RCN Library and Archive Services survey 2016. 96% of respondents who had used the subject guides indicated they were either satisfied or very satisfied.

One area for improvement was raised by forums around how we acknowledge their input. This is very valuable given their specialist knowledge. There is a link to the relevant forum page from each subject guides. Following discussion a process has been agreed to add an additional acknowledgement.

Way forward

Subject guides will be reviewed annually. Library authors will contact the professional leads and forums to request ideas for new resources. They will also search for new items to add to the guides. Resources that are becoming out of date will be removed.  Links will be checked regularly.

Three guides are currently in development:

  • Rheumatology
  • Sustainability
  • Gastroenterology

We are planning six further guides on topics prioritised by the RCN. This will bring the total number of guides to 56. Guides with low usage may be disestablished. This will enable us to develop subject guides on new topics.


Library Subject guides have been successfully introduced and embedded as a new product from the RCN. They have received positive feedback and high usage. Developing the guides has increased links between LAS, forums and professional leads. It has helped us to develop our collection by purchasing items suggested by expert user groups. It has provided RCN members with improved access to information about nursing specialities and key nursing topics. LAS will continue to develop and enhance the subject guides to meet the needs of the organisation. 

Appendix 1: RCN Library subject guides

 1Advanced Nursing Practice
 2Books on Prescription
 3Cancer Care
 4Care of Older People
 6Children and Young People: Children’s Endocrine
 7Children and Young People: Medicines Optimisation
 8Children and Young People: Mental Health Promotion
 9Children and Young People: Sepsis
 10Children and Young People: Transition to Adult Services
 11Continence Care
 12Criminal Justice Services Nursing
 13Critical Care and In-Flight Nursing
 14Defence Nursing Services
 16District and Community Nursing
 17Doing Your Dissertation
 19Emergency Care
 20End of Life Care
 21ENT and Maxillofacial Nursing
 22Fertility Nursing
 23Forensic Nursing
 24General Practice Nursing
 25Getting started using the Library
 26Healthcare Assistants and Assistant Practitioners
 27History of Nursing
 28Imaging Nursing
 29Infection Prevention and Control
 31Learning Disability Nursing
 32Medicines Optimisation
 33Mental Health Nursing
 37Occupational Health
 38Ophthalmic Nursing Services
 39Orthopaedic and Trauma Nursing
 41Perioperative Care
 42Public Health
 45Travel Health
 46Using and doing research: a novice’s guide
 47Women’s Health
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