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.
Monday, October 31, 2011
Sunday, November 28, 2010
The Boston Globe had an article today, "Information Overload, the early years," by Ann Blair. I have to say I began to read it with some reluctance. We have all seen a number of articles along similar lines, where they go back in history and pull up fascinating quotes that prove that Erasmus was disheartened by the sudden plethora of books, and thought it was all just too much. This article does exactly that, of course, showing that when the printing press emerged, yes indeedy, people began to feel swamped in books. Ms. Blair also provides the stunning statistics about how much data is being produced each year, along with quotes from Nicholas Carr worrying (as I do, in fact) that we are changing the way we read.
But the article goes beyond the usual run of the mill descriptions of how they felt the same kind of overload we do. Blair does a wonderful job of noticing that after the first shock of the outpouring of publishing, that various players began devising methods to deal with the wash of data. This is fascinating and gives us actual helpful pointers about how to cope now. I did not know, for instance, that this was the moment when bibliographies, indexes and tables of contents really developed and blossomed. Reference books of all types began to be invented under the pressure of "too many books to read." Collections of quotations, called "florilegia" originally came out. Then selecting, collecting and digesting all kinds of information emerged. I did not realize that this was when note-taking became a skill, or that it had to be taught. And I was fascinated to learn that the roots of library card catalogs are here, at this point in history:
Compilers cut and pasted, very literally, with scissors and glue, from manuscript notes they had already taken — or, even more efficiently, by exploiting a new, cheap source of printed information: older editions of books. These slips were cut from a full page and soon glued onto a new sheet, but in the mid-17th century for the first time one scholar advocated using the slips themselves as an information-storage system. Crucial to this method was a specially designed piece of furniture: a note closet comprising slats studded with hooks on which the slips could be stored and labeled. Probably only a handful of such closets were built, but the slip — and the idea of the filing system — had a long career ahead. In the 18th century the political theorist Montesquieu took notes on the backs of playing cards, which were blank in those days. His younger contemporary Carl Linnaeus made his own slips for recording the characteristics of plants, from which he created a taxonomic system that we still use today. The slips, ordered and sorted, would eventually inspire both the index card and the library card catalog.There were also some failed experiments. There was a sort of "family tree" design of hierarchies and brackets to show the contents and their relationships. There were various efforts to use squiggles and indentations and other signals to show the subcategories of topics before the indented alphabetical indexes and outline-format tables of contents that we see today. This is important to understand. None of the forms we use today were pre-determined, and there had to be experiments to discover what would work the best. There had to be trial and error to find the best methods of dealing with that original information overload, from Johann Gutenberg's printing press. And that means we can and must do the same thing now. In fact, it is happening already, in ways I am not sure we can recognize yet. But it is happening all the same. We are already beginning to cope and adjust. Improved search engines, better search techniques, more ruthless culling of results. I suppose the "cloud tags" are another example of a technique of dealing with labeling.
Librarians' skills are more useful than ever in sorting information. I suspect we will have useful things to offer in the development of these new tools and techniques.
The image is of the library at the University of Leyden from the Globe article and is credited to Getty Archives. The caption in the print edition said the image was from 1610. I hope the image is clear enough for you to see the books chained to the shelves, and the reading racks below the shelf. There are 2 women visiting the library as well as two dogs, which I hope was not an equivalent visit. The books are shelved by topic, with, if you can read the labels along the top of the shelves, "Iuris Consultis," "Medici," "Historici," and other topics listed. Wonderful image with globes having adorable little individual covers, and set up high on shelf tops when not in use. You can see the readers stood at the shelves to read the books, resting their foot on a foot rail, to rest their backs. The table is not for sitting to read, but to set the globes on for measuring distance.
Saturday, November 06, 2010
The Boston Globe ran another story updating its readers on Cushing Academy. In September, 2009, the Globe reported (and we blogged) about this story (here is a follow-up story from that time, when a big part of the story seemed to focus on the expensive coffee machine that was going into the library space). The headmaster (or principal), James Tracy, decided to get rid of nearly all of the books, and spend more money on databases. The space that had been taken up with shelving became more open space, for group seating, for computer use and for a coffee bar. The databases are linked with a federated search engine. E-books are included. The students are instructed in searches and introduced to the databases they will need for a class, but then left to explore on their own.
The library is now more heavily used than ever. The school has hired another librarian since the re-organization. I like this, and think most librarians will not be surprised. The focus we have is increasingly on service, and less on the materials. People need more help sorting and choosing from the huge amounts of information that is too easily found now. Before, it was the other extreme, where gathering the data was the difficulty, and the skill and value of the library and librarians was in sorting, choosing and housing the best information for the patrons.
And yet, if you follow the link to the newer Globe article, you will find that the Cushing Academy has not quite abandoned books, and even the students still like books, and speak a bit wistfully about them. You also will read that none of the other private prep schools in the area have followed Cushing's lead in re-furbishing their libraries. Phillips Academy and Phillips Exeter are keeping their library books, thank you. Headmaster Tracy has had interested inquiries from Harvard Law School, University of Virginia libraries, Syracuse, a rural public school in West Virginia, and UNESCO. There is not much explanation about what those inquiries are leading to. It is interesting that the furor has died down, and the students are very happy with the library. But it is also interesting that the model is not really catching fire at this point and spreading much, either. As the article quotes Harvard's librarian Robert Darnton, “Libraries must advance on two fronts — digital and analogue. To concentrate on one at the expense of the other would be a mistake. The idea that printed books are in decline and will go away is just plain wrong.’’ We are still at that hybrid point, if we will ever reach a point where reading will become completely digital, we have not gotten there yet. The print format still has many points to recommend it, and many situations in which it is still superior, or perhaps the only way to proceed. I was recently at a dinner where a different Harvard librarian was invited to speak and she did a wonderful job of articulately, yet succinctly, explaining to a non-librarian crowd why libraries (at least non-science and non-medical) libraries will continue to need large buildings for at least the next 20 years or more. That is to say, why we will still be dealing with books for that long. There are just so many things that have not yet been digitized yet, and will cost so much to get digitized, that it will take a long time to get them all into the computers, and do it well. In some fields, there are things that may never be digitized -- maybe nobody will ever fund it, or get around to doing it, or find it.
But there is also the dimension of the users' space in libraries. The students' space (or patrons' space). Libraries have a very important role as social hubs and as leverages for people. Many children of immigrants, many autodidacts have written movingly about the role of school and public libraries in their lives. The libraries leverage the information, the literacy in the books multiple times for the readers. They leverage literacy and culture, and civilization throughout the community. In the same way, libraries leverage the space and facilities they offer: photocopiers, scanners, computers, databases, information, multiple times throughout the community to build the economy and allow people to build their careers and start businesses. In a tough economy, libraries are essential boosters to their communities. I think this is true for school libraries, where students and recent grads (or even older alumni) come in to work on their resumes, and job searches. I know my law school has set aside two alumni meeting rooms for offices and our library consciously collects for alumni use. Many state law schools have that as part of their mission as well, and often also collect to support public use in addition. Libraries should maybe try to figure how much they contribute to the economy or at least manage in cost savings for different patron bases or community groups.
The decoration for this blog post is a photo of the library at the Cushing Academy, from the Boston Globe article. I can't help but notice that there are 2 people with laptops and 1 person with a book.