Monday, October 31, 2011

Johns Hopkins To Close Its Medical Library

Before going to law school, I did a brief stint as a reference librarian at a medical school in Brooklyn, New York. It wasn't my finest hour. During my last week of employment, I had to visit the emergency room of the affiliated hospital twice--the first time as the result of a subway mugging, and the second time because of a large cinder that had embedded itself in my eye and had to be surgically removed. I worked at that library long enough, however, to develop an appreciation for medical librarians and the conditions under which they worked. For instance, on several occasions, surgeons called the reference desk from the operating room and asked the librarian on duty for journal searches on unexpected situations they had encountered. Database searching was in its infancy at that time, and PubMeb was not yet available. When I was the librarian who got the call from the O.R., I would approach the computer terminal with shaking hands, knowing that there was possibly a life at stake while I fumbled around trying to determine how to search in order to answer the surgeon's question.

One of the libraries that I often called when I needed immediate help in such situations was the William H. Welch Medical Library at Johns Hopkins University. The librarians there were unfailingly helpful in walking me through searches and in teaching me how to use the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH), which were a foreign language to me. Therefore, I was surprised and little saddened when I learned recently that the Welch Library will soon cease to be a physical presence and become an exclusively online library. This article describes the change, which will occur on January 1, 2012, when the venerable institution will close its doors to patrons. The focus going forward will be on the delivery of online materials, which is what most of the users at Johns Hopkins want. Staff is not being reduced, and patrons will still be able to contact the library for help if needed. Librarians have been "embedded" within the departments at the Medical School since 2005, and patrons can visit them during their official office hours. The director, Nancy Roderer, is not sure about the ultimate use of the building, although she says that the special collections areas will not be affected. Click here for a podcast featuring Ms. Roderer speaking about the Welch's transition to a digital library.

My daughter is working on a Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins Medical School, and I asked her what she thought about the changes at the Welch. She told me that she hasn't stepped foot in the library at all since her first semester there when a librarian threw her study group out of a study room. After that experience, she never felt comfortable approaching the librarians again, which was good because everything she needed, she could pull up herself using PubMed. Her story confirms what I have always said--you cannot have confrontations with students about petty issues and then expect them to approach you when they need help. The relationship is forever poisoned. My daughter and her friends have found other places to study on campus, and none of them will mourn the loss of the physical library.

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