Lost in the Stacks No More
Over five decades, Simeon Margolis spent countless hours in the soon-to-go-bookless Welch Medical Library. Here he muses on what's lost, and gained, in the name of progress.
Date: October 1, 2010
I have always been a library enthusiast—in fact, when visiting universities, I try to evaluate their scholarly worth by visiting their libraries. So you can imagine how upset I was to learn that the Welch Library, as I have known it over the years, will soon cease to exist.
After spending time in the library and speaking to possible users, however, I can understand the rationale. Except for a handful of people using the computers, these days the library is virtually empty. Medical students, house staff, and faculty rarely if ever visit the Welch. Some may not even know where it is. They get the information they need from online journals, books, and sources.
I continue to use the books on reserve for medical students—but they spend so much time poring over the handouts provided by each lecturer that they find no time for outside reading. Furthermore, the Welch is no longer close to where medical students and faculty spend most of their time. The centers of patient care, research, and medical student teaching in the new Armstrong Medical Education Building have moved pretty far to the west.
When I was a medical student and resident here at Hopkins, we studied differently than students do today, and really had no choice but to use the library. We did not get lecture handouts, but because speakers wrote on the board instead of using slides it was possible to summarize important points from each talk with a few pages of notes. In addition, we would read pertinent sections in the textbooks we almost all bought for each course.
Lectures and textbooks alike generated interesting and exciting questions that could only be answered by journals in the Welch. Many of my fellow medical students carried out research projects that required examining journals for methods and previous work done on their subject; and later on as a graduate student I necessarily haunted the library. In our senior medical clerkship, we were each required to prepare and present a paper on a specific medical topic of our interest—an undertaking that required the resources of the Welch. We were also given a multi-page list of selected journal references on a variety of medical topics prepared by Victor McKusick. (Speaking of Dr. McKusick, I am reminded of seeing him one night, just before the library closed, as he checked out an armload of bound journals that he returned—presumably read—the next morning.) When faced with an uncommon illness, residents needed to go to the library to learn about the disorder and how it might be managed. (Interns, of course, could only leave their assigned rotation for some occasional sleep.)
In the years to come, there will be no building to go to. There are some gains to this. Interns and nurses tied to their wards can get immediately needed information from a nearby computer. For others, information will continue to be readily accessible at many sites, and likely from even more sources in the future. And I have already learned the value of the library’s new “informationists.”
But 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.
All that said, 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.