The Welch goes digital
December 6, 2010 |  by Heather Dewar

At the William H. Welch Medical Library, staff members have been busy virtually disassembling the venerable medical library. To Nancy K. Roderer, the library’s future will have arrived when its shelves are empty, its books are gone, and its librarians have become “embedded informationists.” There will still be medical journals and books, but not in the standard, pull-it-down-from-the-shelf sense. They will mostly be electronic documents stored on servers, with some books transferred to the Institute of the History of Medicine library on Welch’s top floor. For Roderer, the library’s director, emptying the Welch and closing its two remaining auxiliary sites will culminate a process that began in 2001 when library planners realized the day was coming when all medical journal articles and books would be available electronically. At that point, the library would transcend its walls—if you had a computer, wherever you were, the library would be there. Roderer recalls, “We said, ‘OK, if the library is wherever you are, what do you need a central point for? You don’t.’”

In 2004, the librarians-turned-informationists were assigned to leave the library and float among 10 departments each in the institutions served by the Welch—School of Medicine, School of Nursing, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Kennedy Krieger Institute, and Johns Hopkins Hospital. Next, the library began buying journals’ digital back issues, to build an electronic collection that could replace the print archive. Librarians and information technology specialists combined digital collections into easy-to-use databases. Finally, this year the staff began getting rid of books and print journals. Most of the discards are tossed into bright yellow fabric bins, the kind hospitals use for linens, says Sue Woodson, Welch’s associate director for collection services. When the bins are full, workers wheel them to a loading dock, and a truck hauls the volumes away to be recycled. Woodson says the Welch print collection will be cut from 300,000 volumes to between 50,000 and 100,000 volumes by the end of 2012.

There will still be reference desks, but they will be located where the informationists are embedded in the various departments. Roderer plans to scale back the Welch’s hours and eventually close it. The building’s fate has not been determined. It has an inner ring of eight concrete and steel stacks staggered among five outer floors, so repurposing it will be expensive.

Welch’s transformation is partly in response to financial pressure, Roderer says. “The cost of library collections has been going up by at least 10 percent per year for so long you can hardly call it a crisis. Keeping paper takes money and space. We chose to get rid of the paper and reduce the footprint of the library. It’s happening to some [libraries] involuntarily. There have been just massive cuts in the last few years.” Roderer has reduced the Welch’s staff from about 100 employees to about 60 through attrition and retraining. “We will have no layoffs,” she says. “When two shelvers retire, we replace them with one informationist.”

Roderer says that virtual libraries make sense in medicine because the field changes so fast that printed material quickly becomes obsolete. Most medical journals went electronic in the 1990s and have digitized back issues. If a patron needs a volume that isn’t digitized and is no longer at the Welch, informationists will turn to the extensive archive of books and journals at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland.

That library’s collection is virtually complete, Woodson says, and where gaps do exist the Welch is helping to fill them by donating some surplus volumes. She points out that Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory has already gone virtual, and Stanford University’s School of Engineering is partway through the same transition. “Other libraries are moving in the direction, but a little bit more slowly.”

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the changes.

Simeon Margolis, a professor in Medicine’s Division of Endocrinology who has been at Hopkins since his undergraduate days, thinks online journals are convenient and he’s glad to have a librarian close at hand. But he misses browsing the library’s stacks, with its opportunity for serendipity. “If you go to the library you often find another book that’s even more valuable

and interesting than the first one,” Margolis says. The Welch’s staffers email him journals’ tables of contents and he can request articles that pique his curiosity, but “it’s still not the same as having the journal in your hand,” he says, and asks, “How generalizable is this to other libraries? I think it is very useful for scientific things. But I find it hard to see how you would do this with sociology or philosophy or literature.”

Woodson agrees. “It’s going to be different in the humanities. But in the medical setting, you want the latest stuff, you want it now, and it’s got to be right there.” She believes some users have visceral reactions to the notion of a library eliminating books. “I blame Ray Bradbury and Hitler,” she says. “People think of getting rid of books as being almost an immoral thing.”

“It is a big change, and I understand that,” Roderer says. “But it has so many advantages, both for the users and financial, that I think it is likely to prevail.”