The NHS could soon have an electronic library if a new pilot works out. But will it ever be 'one of the great libraries of the world', wonders Lyn Whitfield

A teaser.What is the difference between a district general hospital and the NHS electronic Library for Health?

Answer: to build a DGH you need bricks. To build an e-library, you don't. In a DGH you need floors to put the beds on. In an e-library, the floors are virtual. So are the 'books'.

Nevertheless, Peter Bladen, NeLH programme director, says that when the project was looking for Treasury funding, the business case model it was sent was for building a DGH.

Rather than battle with the paperwork, the five-strong team working on the NeLH decided to 'build' it.

The result: a pilot NeLH went live at the first conference of the NHS Information Authority in Birmingham last week.

The library was identified as a priority in the first NHS information management and technology strategy, Information for Health, launched more than two years ago. The NHS Information Authority, through a library adviser, oversees the development in partnership with other groups and NHS librarians.

The original vision was for a 'library' on four 'floors', with a set of 'virtual branch libraries' providing information on subjects such as cancer and diabetes.

The first floor, patient and public information, has since moved into a virtual annexe - NHS Direct Online, which did not exist when the library was first mooted.

This leaves an 'entrance hall' (homepage) and three floors for e-visitors: a know-how floor holding the National Institute for Clinical Excellence's guidelines and similar material; a knowledge floor with a number of resources, including the Cochrane Library; and a 'resource centre' floor with the 'virtual libraries' for a range of diseases and mental health problems.

The Cochrane Library has been a key catch. The NeLH has effectively paid for NHS professionals to have unrestricted access to it. The library can be reached from NHSnet or the Internet. Clinicians entering via the web will have to register to get full Cochrane articles, using an Athens password, a system widely used in NHS libraries and higher education. Members of the public will have to be content with the summaries Cochrane already makes available.

Other goodies, including the British National Formulary and the British Library's professional journals service, will be put into the library in coming months.

The whole project has so far cost between£1.5m and£2m, with the NHS modernisation fund providing£1m for content this year.

No money has been taken from drug companies.

Keeping the library in its current form would cost about£3.5m a year. 'If people do not like it, we can just pull the plug, ' Mr Bladen says. 'We have the Cochrane Library for a year anyway, and that would have cost the NHS what we spent on it.'

The library started with grand ambitions. Its pre-pilot website said its aim was to make NeLH 'one of the great libraries of the world'. The pilot is altogether less grand - a virtual building site with notices up promising further developments, perhaps, rather than a virtual reading room at the British Museum.

The site will be fully evaluated and a business case developed for a permanent library. Treasury approval permitting, this should lead to a 'much more whizzy site.'

But it still won't have bricks.