Sign of the times: Johns Hopkins shuttering its medical library

The library is dead...long live the library.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

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.

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