DAHSL: Developing Academic Health Sciences Libraries

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a collaboration to create the 21st century academic health sciences library…

How Physical Does the Library Need to Be?

by: James Shedlock, Director of Galter Health Sciences Library at Northwestern University COM in Library Notes

The announcement that the Johns Hopkins University medical school will close its health sciences library starting January 1, 2012 has stunned many in the library world. A posting on the Welch Medical Library website describes their new reality. As surprising as the news is, the Hopkins staff and their director, Nancy Roderer, deserve credit for making a tough but reasonable decision.

One take away from the Hopkins announcement is that it’s time to rethink our terminology about libraries. The library building may be closing but the library is still open … online. The physical library is less relevant at Hopkins but the electronic library is what users want, need, appreciate and actually use.

You may wonder if this will become more common at other medical schools. Because this is happening at Hopkins, a top ranked research-intensive medical school according to the U.S. News and World Report, I’ve already been asked by NU faculty if this is a trend. I doubt it for established medical schools, and particularly for Northwestern. Hopkins developed separate student facilities for their programs in medicine, nursing and public health and as a result, the students didn’t need to use the physical Welch Medical Library. At Northwestern, the Galter Library is one of the chief education and collaboration facilities for our students, and the medical school has invested money to make the library a versatile space for study, research, resource storage and social functions.

Perhaps the Hopkins news is not so surprising given the reality of other trends in academic medical libraries: the intensive transition to electronic collections and the aggressive use of information technologies for services. More importantly, the Hopkins announcement reminds us that while the building is closing, the librarians are still providing all the great services they did before, but with the embedded librarian model. The Hopkins librarians are entrenched in the work environment of their users, be it on a clinical floor or at the benchside in the laboratory. No matter that the physical library is no longer open, the librarians’ service to users remains, and gains a new dimension, thanks to technology and subject expertise. Now, librarians don’t have to be associated with a building for their professional practice.

Outside of closing the library building, I see similar changes taking place here at Northwestern. We too are on our way to adopting the embedded librarian model. Our Biosciences and Bioinformatics librarian, Pamela Shaw serves the information needs of our researchers and graduate students in their work spaces. Our liaison librariansare busy meeting faculty in their offices for search and EndNote consultations. Librarians working with users at their point-of-need has been the norm here at Northwestern for years and will continue to increase in importance. I can also see reshaping the Galter Library’s physical space to better serve our students, faculty, staff and librarians. The space the stacks once occupied can be better used for more people-oriented functions.

The library may change as a physical entity, but the great services and resource management you’ve come to expect from the Galter librarians will only continue to develop in step with the needs of you, the users. I would love to hear your views on the future of the library space. Feel free to comment below, contact me by email or call me at 312-503-8133.

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