Sign of the times: Johns Hopkins shuttering its medical library

Sign of the times: Johns Hopkins shuttering its medical library

Summary: The library is dead...long live the library.


I spent several years at Johns Hopkins, first as an undergrad and then as a researcher at the School of Public Health. This was in the 90's, when the Apple Newton was too far ahead of its time to take off and I spent a lot of time in the William Henry Welch Medical library. I at least walked past the library every day on my way into my office across the street.

Yesterday, a colleague shared an article with me noting that the library would be closing its physical building at the end of this year. I read it with mixed emotions. The building is an icon of one of the top hospitals and medical schools in the world, a place where I spent many days studying in the stacks, pulling journal articles for reference in my research, and otherwise finding an even quieter place to work than my office or the library on the undergraduate campus. As long-time Hopkins faculty, Dr. Simeon Margolis, wrote last month,

...What I will miss most about the Welch’s evolution is the loss of the centuries-old idea of a library building as the place to go to read and to look for information.

I can't help but agree with him on a visceral level and yet I also know that the libraries move to a fully online collection, where staff are available and embedded throughout the university as "informationists" who support doctors and researchers in quickly finding the information they need to advance medical scientists and treat patients, is inherently positive.

People don't go to Johns Hopkins for appendectomies. They go there with rare and difficult conditions to seek help from the top medical minds in the world. If I'm at Hopkins as a patient and not to visit old friends and colleagues, I don't want my team of physicians and residents to be searching through the stacks for possible answers or keys to my treatment. I want them to pull out their iPads and have instant access to the information they need to make me better.

The cost savings from moving to an entirely online model will be devoted to expanding journal and database subscriptions and building out the informationist program that is so vital to the effective and efficient use of the vast amounts of data available to the medical community. Only about 100 people enter the library each day, while the library serves up 35,000 article downloads. No matter what sort of nostalgia I might feel towards the library and the institution, I have to applaud the move.

Libraries are more important than ever in research institutions, not for the buildings, the stacks, or the hundreds of thousands of volumes of books and journals, but for the information-related services they provide. If those services can be expanded and their resources made available anytime, anywhere, at reduced costs to the people who need them, then it's time for a very new vision of what a library should and can be.

The dust on the books always bothered my allergies anyway.

Topics: Health, Apple, iPad, Software, Tablets

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: Sign of the times: Johns Hopkins shuttering its medical library

    What will the team of physicians and residents do when the system goes down?
    Will the online data be as resilient to attacks as the physical building?
    • They will do what they usually do


      Rely on that thing between their ears they spent most of their lives filling with information.
      • Not so simple! Reference manuals are mostly not for memorization

        and looking up the data for specific illnesses and specific situations and for recommendations of medicines and interactions between medicines, will be made a lot more difficult.

        But, I imagine that there will still be a computer somewhere in the hospital with most of the reference material being kept for situations when the on-line world becomes unavailable.
      • Those kind of references


        Are in hard copy already on the wards and nurses stations and in the memory of the smartphones most MD's are carrying. In addition they are also found in small staff liibraries most hospitals have inside them. In the event of a "disaster", and losing internet connectivity comes darn close to qualifying these days, references for the esoteric will not be needed.
      • oncall: That's basically what I said, although a smartphone

        or even a tablet isn't what I had in mind.<br><br>The reference material had better be in a more permanently maintained database, because, smartphones and tablets can be "misplaced" or lost or damaged.
      • My point being


        Any prepared hospital is ready to endure a complete internet and intranet outage (psssst it's my job to know). A library really has no part to play in such a disaster other than to house sick patients. Therefore, maintaining a physical library "just in case" is not a valid expense.
    • RE: Sign of the times: Johns Hopkins shuttering its medical library

      @SinfoCOMAR The'll do something similar to what what they used to do when the one and only physical item was not on shelf, or the pages of the article had been ripped out... Wait for the item (now system) to come back.... With the advantage on not having to walk/drive to the one and only physical library location.
    • RE: Sign of the times: Johns Hopkins shuttering its medical library


      What would have happened in the physical library caught on fire? Will they be able to restore from backup?
  • Ahhh the good old days

    I remember spending hours digging up an article or two on some obscure topic way back when, IF the library even had the journal in the first place. Now, with Google, I can have 10 articles on anthing I want in about 30 seconds.

    I imagine my twins (now 3) will find it quite amusing (or horrifying) to hear daddies tales about how he used to have to actually drive to a library in his 12 MPG clunker, go thumbing through index cards and microfilm, then searching the stacks with a significant chance of failure, to look something up. They won't believe me. I'll sound like Bill Cosby when he does his walking to school skit (in the snow, uphill, both ways) LOL.

    P.S. I wonder if most people fully comprehend how information has changed? Before it was largely a matter of access, if you had physical access to a well stocked library you could look up most things. Now, for a few humdred dollars, you can have a handheld device that literally gives you instant access to almost the ENTIRE worlds accumulated knowledge.
  • RE: Sign of the times: Johns Hopkins shuttering its medical library
  • RE: Sign of the times: Johns Hopkins shuttering its medical library
  • Libraries great for serendipity

    One thing that book libraries excel at is serendipity, the fine happenstance of finding things you didn't know you were looking for. It broadens one's horizons. Google has some of that, Wikipedia has a lot of that. It's what I like best about physical libraries.
    • RE: Sign of the times: Johns Hopkins shuttering its medical library

      @Reality-based That's precisely why I like them too, along with rapidly-disappearing music & video rental stores, and (to a much lesser extent) local video game arcades. Finding new stuff by chance, and completely enjoying it, is one of the best experiences to have.
    • Re: Libraries great for serendipity

      @Reality-based But libraries never gave you serendipity like this:
  • RE: Sign of the times: Johns Hopkins shuttering its medical library

    It is the patients who can benefit most from the library - or suffer without one. As a physician, I hope the money is reinvested in free campus Wi-Fi for patients, iPads for them to "check out" and use, and reliable digital resources curated for them to browse.
  • US Light years behind Europe

    "The building is an icon of one of the top hospitals and medical schools in the world" If you are a man you need to be alarmed at this statement. John Hopkins is NOT one of the top hospitals in the world.

    Recently I had prostate cancer. The John Hopkins Hospitals of the US could NOT help me. I had a choice of going to Mexico, Dominican Republic or Europe for a lifesaving procedure. I chose London. I am now cancer free, no thanks to the American medical system.

    Even Mexico has a more advanced hospital that treats prostate cancer than John Hopkins or any other US hospital for that matter.

    The online medical records will not help.
    • One man's experience is proof of the bigger picture?

      Why bother with surveys when the experience of one person will be indicative of how all people feel about any one issue?

      BTW, didn't you have to wait your turn before you could be treated? Or did you get preferential treatment?
  • Sniff...sniff...

    But my iPad doesn't smell like a library!

  • RE: Sign of the times: Johns Hopkins shuttering its medical library

    Online can go down and/or be hacked or cyber attacked, all things a physical library doesn't have to worry about.
    • True

      But redundant data centers aren't likely to all burn down at the same instant. Also, I don't have to spend 4 years' worth of tuition to multiple institutions in order to access the <i>cumulative</i> knowledge base found in their libraries.

      Just like anything else in the world there are pluses and minuses to both ways of doing things. This day has been predicted, and expected, since at least the 1960's if not earlier. It's time to forward through history rather than simply looking back at how we used to do things.