Libraries everywhere are ditching shelves in favor of computer terminals, and patients and health professionals are turning to electronic tools to aid diagnosis and treatment.
It’s no surprise, then, to see both of these trends converging in the libraries of medical schools. At the UNT Health Science Center’s Gibson D. Lewis Health Science Library, recent renovations have made the building more conducive to the new way people study and research, and the faculty and staff are taking on new roles to help individuals, companies, health care professionals, students and researchers access information.
“Anybody who needs health information is our target,” said Lisa Smith, deputy director of the library.
With about $2.1 million in core funding from the state and an additional $15,000 subcontract from the National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, the library provides electronic resources, traditional books and materials, and special collections.
The subcontract from the NLM is due to the fact the library is part of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, a group of medical libraries that provide outreach to hospitals and health workers and the general public on behalf of the NLM. The outreach events range from teaching lactation classes to providing continuing education programs to nurses in remote or rural counties throughout the 24-county area the library serves.
And while some large hospitals may have librarians on staff to help health care providers search through journals or publications for specific information, many hospitals — especially smaller ones in outlying areas — don’t have that luxury in house, said Daniel Burgard, director of the library.
“We serve as the library for all the other places you’d call a hospital,” he said.
Since so many things are provided electronically now, actually visiting a library may not be necessary to find information. Alexis Ackel is an electronic resources librarian, and she said the electronic shift has meant librarians have had to take on new roles to help people navigate complex computer systems to perform thorough searches.
“It’s also a constantly evolving set of tools,” she said.
However, on the up side, those tools can provide much easier access to resources that might have required an in-person visit to a library a decade ago. This access means a student at the Health Science Center, for example, can research through the school’s library even if he or she is serving in a rotation far away from the campus. Additionally, students in various programs across campus take classes to learn how to utilize the library’s system.
Students are not the only ones who benefit from the library. While there are large amounts of space devoted to students studying — rooms for study groups, for example, or hundreds of electrical outlets to accommodate laptops — there also is a Center for Learning and Development, a place where faculty can learn to better incorporate electronic tools in their classes.
The general public and companies or organizations not affiliated with the campus also are welcome, although there are sometimes fees for access to full journal articles or assistance or research done by staff. The fees may be less through the library than buying the article individually off the Internet from the publisher.
“That’s a constant battle we fight,” she said. “People think everything’s available for free on the Internet.”
However, finances are always on the minds of librarians. Ackel tracks the electronic journals and contracts for access, and roughly $900,000 per year goes toward paying for those online publications. Because contracts can be very specific — for example, only certain people can access an online article, or it can only be used a certain number of times — using electronic resources can require more administrative effort than a hard copy of a journal, which belongs to the library and people can reference as needed.
The librarians are on hand to help companies or individuals who have requests, however. An individual may come in needing help researching a specific disease, for example, or a company may need medical research for a specific safety concern, Burgard said, and he estimates he’s seen almost every major company in the area call in with a request for research during the past decade. Lawyers also reference the materials available through the library, and researchers or developers in small biotech start-ups also make use of what’s available.
In the spring and summer of 2009, the four-story library building went through major renovations – shelving was removed from the top story to make room for study areas instead. The traditional library stacks in other parts of the library also were rearranged, and areas with couches or seats for socializing were added in response to requests from students and faculty.
“We have made tons of changes over the past few years,” he said.
And while getting rid of books or printed versions of journals may seem bizarre for a library, electronic resources are here to stay and will only become more integral to how research is done and how health is addressed, Ackel said. It’s not a better way and it’s not a worse way.
“I think it just makes things different,” she said.