September 28, 2021

Major Medical Library Closing Its Doors to Patrons and Moving to Digital Model


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.

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.


  1. librarian who does't get it says:

    Closing library doors while still getting 104 walk-ins a day with 40 of them checking out books seems a little brusque to me. How much money can possibly be saved while you are still in the same building with the same utility bills but less people benefiting from it? Am I totally missing something? It feels less like moving forward and more like cloistering the librarians away like they are nuns.

  2. Like Coke-a-Cola the Johns will need to re-think this, I believe.

  3. Nancy Roderer is a JHU treasure. She is not only a librarian’s librarian, but a true researcher’s partner and resource, committed to providing an outstanding level of service to aid in the scientific discovery process. The notion of giving up bricks and mortar in favor of ensuring widespread electronic access and a focus on “embedded” librarians as information specialists is laudable. I share these sentiments not only as a current STM publishing professional, but also a Hopkins alum who during graduate school spent many hours in Welch Library “lost in the stacks” or more importantly, engaged in exploring the wonderful research literature that Hopkins makes available for its students and faculty. I will confess to a bit of sentimentality when I read that the physical Welch library experience will be going away…but have every confidence that Nancy Roderer will ensure that Hopkins has access to the cutting edge information resources it needs.

  4. Stephen Johnson says:

    This looks to me like a neutral move at best. How will the library be a “much more effective instrument”? Something is clearly lost, but what is gained? Since the location of the librarian’s office is largely irrelevant, embedding them doesn’t necessarily add value, but it certainly adds risk. The embedded librarians better be outstanding or they’re likely to end up doing administrative assistant work, or be the first to go in a budget cut.

  5. Scott Catledge, Professor Emeritus says:

    Perhaps the most useful facet of the brick&mortar library is its capacity to allow browsing. As a student undergrad/grad/postgrad/postdoc and as a professor, I have found what I needed more often through physical browsing than through specific searches.

  6. A Candid Comment says:

    Nancy Roderer really went off the edge in trashing the print collection and then prohibiting faculty and students from entering the library. This was a devastating political stunt and the real motivations behind it are not something that I am proud of as a member of the Johns Hopkins community. They are best summarized by saying that there are huge problems in the way that librarians perceive faculty/administrators here, and maybe vice versa. It had very little to do with user needs.

    • Dr. James Pat Craig says:

      I agree with you totally. As a retired medical library director, I would never consider such a move. The biggest reasons are not in the way that librarians and faculty perceive each other or in savings that may or may not be realized from this drastic move. We all know that not everything is available “online” and never will be. If the building is going to be maintained and no one is going to be let go, where is the savings? I suspect that very little will be realized in savings. In fact, this may cost more in the long run as materials are still going to be circulated according to interviews that Ms. Roderer has given. Will this not require more staff to move materials from place to place as well as having to house these print materials somewhere. Where will the print items be housed? If not in the physical library, then where? There are a number of unanswered questions that sort of jump out at me. I think that JHU administration should thoroughly examine this move before allowing it to happen.

  7. It has been a year since Roderer’s article announced the closing of the Welch Library doors and changing its aim to service only digital media. I am a librarian and bookseller, as son of a library director. I recognize fully the changing times and the increasing need for digital access. The library closure was a bold and seemingly risky move. For many this is shocking and I was shocked when I first heard of it. Still I wonder, after a year (or also assess the change in 4 years…) how this model is working at this juncture. My father might have pointed out that an archive needs to be useful to just one scholar to make it worth acquiring and curating. The closing of a library or a bookstore will quickly divert a lot of people away from a collection and seek other forms of access. I personally would rather service both printed media and digital by staying open and finding new ways to make books desirable in conjunction with digital media. The book as an object itself often tells a story of use to the researcher. Holding an actual manuscript in hand and seeing it is far different than seeing on-line media. I think we may be headed for an information explosion with digital access. It should make one want to verify all those references one can find by on-line indexing. You still need to check your resources.

    • librarian who does't get it says says:

      Last December, the Dean (I believe) of the JHU School of Medicine, shut down plans to shutter the library. For awhile when you went to the Welch Medical Library website, you got a pop up letter from the Dean assuring users the library would not be closing its doors.

      While there may not be a need for a physical library someday, an appropriate approach is to let that change occur gradually. Visionaries are often right in the overall picture but wrong when it comes to the details and time. Nancy was forcing a vision into being before its time. That is not a typical approach for librarians. Most librarians pay attention to their users and update resources and services based on user needs.


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  8. […] “Major Medical Library Closing Its Doors to Patrons and Moving to Digital Model” (posted by The Digital Shift on October 27, 2011) – The bit near the end about how older issues of medical journals aren’t online at all (and may never be.) Again – there’s a genuine danger that we’ll lose access to important history through these information storage and access models. […]