In his 1945 essay in The Atlantic, Vannevar Bush imagines an office information machine that would instantly produce files and materials on any needed subject while the researcher sat at his own desk. His Memex system was never built, but the idea of it has inspired decades of research and development toward an effective one-stop-shopping information system. When the Welch Medical Library sat down with its users in 2001 to imagine its future, the vision it created was of a single source for all needed biomedical scholarly material, available wherever the user was.
“The online journal frees the content from its physical container and similarly frees the library from its physical container — the building.”
We selected 2012 as a point when a reasonable version of the system could be provided to users and identified three essential components: an all-electronic collection, superb retrieval systems, and the services of a librarian (informationist) for assistance when needed. As we get nearer to 2012, we are approaching the goal of the library wherever you are. Below we describe what we have achieved and the challenges we have faced.
The key to creating the Wherever You Are library lies in moving the collection from print to electronic format. With only 88 journal subscriptions remaining in print format, our current serial collection is almost entirely electronic. We have backfiles for most of our major publishers and continue to collect them when they are available and funds allow. Our strong document delivery system complements the online collection by providing desktop delivery of any materials we hold only in print. The online journal frees the content from its physical container and similarly frees the library from its physical container — the building. We bring the collection to the users rather than requiring the users to come to us.
In the Wherever You Are library, good avenues of access to the online collections are critical. Our website home page features links to Frequently Accessed e-Resources, as well as search boxes for our three most commonly used search services: PubMed, our electronic resources and our catalog. A QuickLink drop-down menu provides easy access to services like ILL, and a prominent key at the top of the home page makes it very easy for users to log in for remote access via our proxy server. In addition to our website, we also provide specialized portals for departments, centers and individuals.
The library staff
The composition of the library staff has changed significantly since 2001 as the focus moved from acquisition and management of print in a single location to an electronic collection delivered where the user is located. Fewer clerical staff and more professional librarians and technical staff are needed. To reshape staffing for this work requires considerable retraining and redistribution of staff through attrition and the development of new positions. Library teams include Digital Library Services, Welch Services Center (circulation, reserves, etc.), Advanced Technology and Information Systems, Finance and Administration, and two Informationist departments.
Welch Medical Library's embedded informationists deliver customized information services to academic and clinical departments — at the patrons’ points of research, teaching and clinical care. By working in the patrons’ environment and integrating into their workflows, informationists can answer questions faster, fill information needs more effectively, and act as information experts on research and care teams.
Fostering relationships within departments is an organic iterative process unique to the informationist and the individual department, which varies in size, structure and culture. Informationists are assigned based on their background, subject expertise, and an interest in or affinity for medical/health disciplines. By being visible, using a variety of interpersonal communication skills, conducting ongoing needs assessments with key department members, and participating in their activities and committees, we build the foundation for the collaborative relationships we have with researchers, educators and clinicians.
As informationists providing services to users in their environments, we realize the importance of also maintaining our own team. We actively participate in library committees to stay current with technologies, share searching skills, coordinate educational programs, discuss strategies that bring us closer to the work of our users, and assess our embedded service model.
Leaving the buildings behind
Our Wherever You Are library no longer requires physical service points in a separate library building. Circumstances of our environment — the existence of a separate History of Medicine library, medical archives and a clinical simulation center on our campus, as well as excellent study spaces throughout campus for students — further reduce our need for public library space. Looking to the future, we expect to house only library staff. Toward that end, we have closed branch libraries and reduced public service hours in the main building. Two significant challenges remain. The first is a sentimental but quite real attachment to the idea of library as place, whether or not users actually go to it. The second is a physical one, the need to repurpose space previously used for paper collections and user services. We have made steps in that direction, but the major changes required are expensive.
Technology has played a key role in our efforts; what we have done would not be possible without large digitized collections, ready availability of the Internet, and individualized access to technological resources. Reviewing what we have accomplished, it seems that the next decade will focus even more intensely on technology, allowing the user an ever greater ability to find and manipulate just the right information from all that is available.