The William H. Welch Medical Library at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, will close its doors to patrons on January 1, 2012. But the library as an information resource is not closing; it is just moving completely online.
The transition, 10 years in the making, is an inevitable acknowledgment of the dwindling use of the 81-year-old library’s 45,000-square-foot building and its 400,000 physical volumes, according to Nancy K. Roderer, the library’s director.
“The library does an ongoing review of services to make sure they are as cost effective as possible,” Roderer said in a podcast about the transition. “We’ve looked at the trends and seen that use of the building has gone down, the circulation of paper material has gone down, at the same time we’ve seen very large increases in the use of online materials,” she said.
The tipping point came last year, she said, when the library staff calculated that on an average day there were 104 people walking through doors of the physical library, there were 40 people checking out books, and there were 35,000 articles downloaded.
“That all said to us that we should put our emphasis on the delivery of online materials and support that,” Roderer said. Such an approach is also particularly useful for a medical library, which needs to have the most current information in health sciences available.
“To me the most important thing is it creates an environment where there is greatly increased use of the scholarly literature,” Roderer told LJ. “And it happens wherever people are — the office, the clinic, the lab, at home — which is an important factor in getting more use of library materials,” she said.
The library spends about 95 percent of its acquisition budget on journals and databases, and projected savings from the transition will be redirected toward the collection, Roderer said. After the transition, it is estimated that 95 percent of the collection will be available electronically, and the balance can be reserved and delivered.
The library’s staff has dwindled steadily over the past 10 years, from 90 FTEs, in 2001 to 52 today, even as the library’s budget has held fairly steady, going from $8.2 million last year to $8.6 million this year. It has also closed six branches. But Roderer said the final shift to an all-online service will not result in any layoffs.
“We committed to no layoffs or staff reductions, and so far so good,” she said.
“We do a lot of talking about our mission and the need to evolve as technology evolves. Has that sold everyone? No. There are still people uncomfortable with that idea one way or another,” she said.
In an interview on the library’s blog she said: “Part of this is adapting jobs to the work load. That’s the kind of thing you have to do sometimes. Go from where you were, to where you need to be next. I’d be the first one to admit that this kind of transition is very hard to do. For many people there’s a great comfort in doing the same thing. But if that thing is no longer needed, then what?”
The dissatisfaction was most prominent among paraprofessionals and technicians, she said. Some faculty members also are not completely comfortable with the idea.
Three staff members declined to comment. Marsha Jolly, who works in the cataloging department, would only say “What can you do, you go with the flow.”
“The general reaction is either neutral or positive, more in the neutral category,” Roderer said on the podcast. “It makes no difference to online users, but that is not to say there hasn’t been some anxiety on the part of people who expect a physical library, some nostalgia … ”
Simeon Margolis, a professor of medicine and biological chemistry and a member of the faculty since 1965, wrote an article called “Lost in the Stacks No More” for the Hopkins Medicine Magazine.
Margolis wrote that he understood the rationale for the change and the benefits that will come from having information readily available anywhere there is a computer, but he, nevertheless, will miss “the centuries-old idea of a library building as the place to go to read and to look for information.”
…. some things, inevitably, will be lost. During my decades here, many students and faculty purchased subscriptions to journals; my choices were The New England Journal and Journal of Clinical Investigation. Looking through the contents of each issue usually unearthed an interesting article that I read or scanned. Similarly, when going to the stacks for a recommended book, I often found others nearby that were more useful and interesting. Today, although many of the most commonly used journals are online, the oldest issues of some journals are not. Students like me who are interested in historical matters must order these past issues from their off-site storage site and wait a few days for their arrival—a small, but at times annoying, inconvenience.
Those wanting assistance from a librarian can still contact the library via email or phone. But the library also has “embedded” librarians since 2005 within different departments at the university, so a patron needing assistance can call upon these “informationists,” who have office hours around the campus.
There are also numerous spaces around the campus where people can study instead of the physical library building, Roderer said.
The ultimate fate of the physical building is not yet determined, but the collection will continue to be weeded. One plan that Roderer said she favors is to make it a center for graduate medical education. Whatever the final decision, the Institute of the History of Medicine collection and the West Reading Room, which houses The Four Doctors by John Singer Sargent, will not be affected, she said.
Roderer said there is some risk associated with lowering the library’s physical profile in an environment where “people keep close track of the amount of space devoted to certain activities,” but she was, nonetheless, confident about the library’s future.
“I understand the anxiety, I understand the nostalgia. But what results will be a much more effective instrument,” she said. “The circumstances that make it the right thing for our particular library at this particular point are pretty strong. That doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for other libraries but it is the right thing for us,” she said.