Why is the Hospital Library Disappearing?

This May the Medical Library Association and Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries released the “Statement on the Global Economic Crisis and its Impact on the Health Sciences Library Collections.” 

Budget pressures are hitting academic medical libraries as well has hospital libraries.  Yet as the statement says, these libraries are “pivotal to the success of all health care organizations.” The libraries’ collections and services support the institutions information needs including providing information to medical professionals for patient care.  However the economy and budget pressures have forced many libraries to make substantial cutbacks resulting in smaller collections of regular and online resources and fewer library staff to provide services.  According to a recent AAHSL survey “many academic libraries had mid-year budget reductions in the current fiscal year, and nearly 70% are expecting budget cuts for the coming year, some of which could be 10% or higher. In many cases these are permanent cuts to libraries budgets.” 

If large academic medical libraries are feeling the pinch, you better believe the smaller hospital library is in a vice grip.  I almost wonder if they were our canary in the tunnel.  And in some instances I can say yes.  Yet at other times I often wonder why a hospital hasn’t already cut their library.  As a medical librarian and one whose previous job was working in a community hospital this may come across as a pretty odd statement. 

Every day I encounter different librarians and libraries at all different levels and I am amazed and saddened by the ones who provided wonderful services with limited budgets and resources yet all of a sudden found their job reduced or eliminated.  But for each of those super librarians I unfortunately run into, I also run into librarians who seem to be stuck in a time warp and are running a 1980 library in 2009 and wondering why their budget is cut every year.  I am not saying these librarians have to be on Twitter or doing the latest and greatest things with technology.  But these librarians have got to be looking at future and seeing and evaluating whether their resources and services they have in today’s environment are relevant to their institution.

While I was at MLA I sat in on several committees, meetings, and section programs.  There were heated debates on the state of the hospital library.  One very heated debate centered around the hospitals without librarians ordering on DOCLINE.  This even spilled out on to Medlib-l email list.  Yet can you blame a hospital for eliminating its library when the librarian has not activated one online journal title?  Can you blame the hospital library for outsourcing its document delivery (or trying to use DOCLINE on the sly) when their librarian did not have an online document delivery program in process and received their articles through the mail and then turned around and sent them to the doctor via inter-office mail?  Can you blame the hospital administrator for believing everything is online through Google when the librarian didn’t even have an online catalog or bother to add the URLs to the 856 field of the catalog? 

Some of you may think I exaggerate the state of some hospital libraries, I can assure you I have been to these type of libraries through my travels.   Each time I see them I silently shake my head and wonder how long they will be at their job or if the library will survive when they retire.  What makes me frustrated is that these librarians either don’t realize that they are slowing killing their library or they are so close to retirement they don’t care.   I have seen enough hospital libraries close once the librarian retires and the hospital either outsources their needs from companies or another hospital library picks up the pieces. 

Now days academic medical libraries are feeling the pinch of the economy and they are being asked to do more with less.  How they respond will predict their outcome.  If they become complacent or ignore the future issues, they will encounter many of the same problems as hospital libraries and librarians have been dealing with for quite a while.  Time to stop thinking about your users coming to you, but how you can come to your users.   That may not prevent all closures and cutbacks like those hospital librarians who were cut despite the wonderful services they provided.  But to do otherwise will almost assuredly land your library in the same spot as the hospital library that  still relies on card catalogs and has no links to their electronic collection.

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