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Hopkins Medicine Magazine - At 81, the Welch Bids Goodbye to Books

Fall 2010

At 81, the Welch Bids Goodbye to Books

Welcome to the new age of "Informationists."

By: Geoff Brown
Date: October 1, 2010


Welch Library Director Nancy K. Roderer
Roderer’s mantra: “The closer the information is to you, the more likely you are to use it.”

A few years ago, several librarians from the Welch Medical Library were speaking with a group of faculty members. The subject? Upcoming and ongoing changes at the Welch: The library, which opened its doors in 1929, would be moving to a purely digital model, with no books and no stacks. The change meant that everything in the Welch collection—some 400,000 bound volumes and thousands of journals and databases—would eventually be available online, accessible from anywhere, at any time.

This promise of seeming bounty was received in a way that librarians had heard before. One faculty member said, “You’re taking away my library!” Another quickly corrected: “But you don’t go there.”

That exchange reveals a lot about how Johns Hopkins users have changed the way they interact with the William H. Welch Medical Library, the three-story, Renaissance-influenced limestone building at 1900 E. Monument Street.

From 2006-07 to 2008-09, the library saw a surge in online usage of journals, books, and other materials. Welch recorded an increase of 6 million journal articles retrieved electronically, and a 120 percent increase in the use of electronic books. At the same time, in-library visitors declined—demonstrated by 6,500 fewer books checked out over the same period.

Welch Library Director Nancy K. Roderer has long felt that the future of library collections would be all-digital, leading her to adopt a new guiding principle: “The closer the information is to you, the more likely you are to use it.”

With the advent of portable Internet and Wi-Fi, she says, “nothing could be closer than ‘wherever I am.’”

For a medical library, where new research constantly changes the playing field, the shift to the digital world makes particular sense: Medical libraries can “move more quickly because of the widespread availability of electronic materials, and should do so given the importance of having the most current information in the health sciences,” Roderer says.

Beginning in 2001, the Welch Library worked with outside consultants and two advisory committees—chaired by Vice Dean for Education David Nichols—to develop a long-range strategic plan, which ultimately called for a rapid and assertive move into digital collections. “The question was not, ‘What do we want next?’ but, ‘How will the library work when everything is digital, and how can we get there?’” says Roderer, who also directs the Johns Hopkins Division of Health Sciences Informatics.

If there was no longer a need for a physical library, why not spread the librarians around campus to better assist the 30,000 “customers” that Welch serves?

“Informationists”—the moniker for a new breed of librarian who works within departments and divisions—began appearing in the School of Medicine’s hallways in 2005, and have now become valued assets for research, teaching, and clinical practice. There are currently 10 “embedded” informationists serving departments (ranging from Allergy and Clinical Immunology to Urology), and Roderer would like to add more as the budget allows.

Informationist Blair Anton has been with Gastroenterology for two and a half years. “She’s been an enormous help,” says Anthony Kalloo, director of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. “Not only does she help me keep up with the latest articles and information in my own area and specialties, she helps me prepare for lectures and helps faculty gather background material for grant applications.”

So what will the Welch Library contain in 2012? First, “there will be far fewer paper books and journals,” says Roderer, with 98 percent of the collection budget going to electronic materials.

She adds, “We have had a number of ideas about how to repurpose the rest of the building, with the current proposal being to bring aspects of graduate medical education [in].”

One thing won’t change, however. On the third floor, the Institute of the History of Medicine collection, including a considerable collection of rare books, will remain untouched, as will the West Reading Room, home to The Four Doctors by John Singer Sargent.

See related Hopkins Reader article:

THE END OF AN ERA: Veteran Welch Library user Simeon Margolis shares his perspective.

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