Long Live the Library

Just yesterday I read that Johns Hopkins Medical Library has decided to close its physical location on January 1, 2012. JHU embedded its subject librarians in their respective departments years ago, and after reviewing the relative use of print and electronic sources, decided to shut down the main building but have no plans to lay off any current staff. This is a major event, maybe even a turning point in the future of libraries, and it brought back vivid memories of the one day I spent in the Johns Hopkins Medical Library.

I studied at Johns Hopkins for five weeks in the summer of 1999, taking classes for college credit in Java and molecular biology before returning to high school for my senior year. Yes, I’m that young. Yes, I’m that much of a nerd.

For my molecular biology class we were split into teams to learn about a particular topic, write a paper, and present back to the class. My team got assigned stem cells, and I was in charge of looking up recent advances in the field. Using the online catalog and the materials available on the main campus, I learned of a seminal experiment that had been conducted a few years earlier. After reading the fifth article referencing the experiment, I decided to find the original article for myself. But the article wasn’t online, and it wasn’t on the Homewood Campus. The only copy was in the Medical Library.

So, the Saturday before the paper was due, I caught a bus to the Medical School and 20ish minutes later it dropped me off in front of the building. The library was open, but aside from a woman at the circulation desk, I don’t remember seeing anyone else. She pointed me to a computer terminal where I found the journal’s call number. Then I headed into the stacks.

I have a very distinct memory of the institutional concrete, metal shelves, and low lighting that greeted me when I got off the elevator. I found the aisle that held the back issues of the journal of the American Society of Hematology, aptly named Blood. Just imagine it: shelves upon shelves of black bound volumes, each with the word BLOOD emblazoned in large letters on the spine. I shivered, found the volume I needed, pulled it down, located the article, sat down in front of the shelf, and read the article. I nearly threw up.

The study that everyone had been so excited about? It described a new procedure tested on 8 patients — 3 of whom died and 2 contracted Graft-vs-Host Disease. This was the breakthrough, because it worked just as well as the previous treatment. Sitting on that concrete floor was the first time in my life that I seriously considered not going into medicine, whether as a doctor or researcher. I couldn’t face the body count.

After a few hours, I finished reading the article and taking my notes. I replaced the volume on the shelf and headed out to catch the bus.

In all the years I have spent in libraries — for relaxation, for research, and now for my job — I don’t think anything compares to that one day. Books have been some of my closest friends, but that article changed my life. That space is about to be gone. I’m sure the decision wasn’t made lightly, and I can’t argue with the reasons given. The information will be curated, preserved, accessible, and cumulative, and that is what matters. But I still felt the need to tell that story.

The library is dead. Long live the library.

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