Reimagining the Welch Medical Library

When the Welch Medical Library was founded more than 80 years ago, it was unimaginable that users would expect to plug in their laptops or that medical journals would migrate to a digital format.

The building provided both a vital academic resource and gathering space for students, faculty, and staff of Johns Hopkins University's schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Public Health and for employees of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

But today, the aging structure is outdated and in disrepair, and medical academic resources have largely migrated online, signaling an uncertain future for the Welch Library building. It's in transition, says library director Nancy Roderer. "We want it to continue to be there," she adds, "but what goes on inside is an open discussion."

To address the library's future, in January 2012 the deans of the three schools and the hospital president convened the Committee for the 21st-Century Welch Library, charged with first distinguishing between the library as a building and as an information resource, and determining how best to serve the community's academic information needs. The group issued a final report in August, including recommendations to reaffirm it as an information resource and to improve use of the building.

Since then, a new and expanded committee, the Welch Library Advisory Committee, representing a broad group of stakeholders, was formed. One subcommittee is now tackling perhaps one of the most immediate needs of the building: preliminary renovations. This could include fixes such as updated lighting, electrical rewiring, and reworked study areas, and about $2 million has been made available for repairs sometime this fiscal year, says Roderer, who is retiring this month.

The assessment of the building's renovation needs is ongoing, says Todd Dorman, senior associate dean for education coordination in the School of Medicine and head of the new building subcommittee. The group must first determine if there are any safety issues to be addressed, followed by repairs to avoid ongoing damage to the structure.

"Then we will look to do renovations that would benefit the community most," Dorman says, "so we can do the smartest set of renovations to support a healthy future of the building and meet the diversity of users' needs."

Some of the short-term renovations could include replacing the windows, making repairs to the skylight, improving restroom accessibility, and refurbishing the study carrels. The space may also be reconfigured, and much of the library staff has already been relocated to the Mount Washington campus to accommodate the changes.

While the structure is under repair, services will continue both in the building and online, Roderer says. A plan proposed a year ago to end the library's services created some confusion, and many thought the building was closing. The Johns Hopkins community will also still be able to access the collection of the Institute of the History of Medicine, located in the building.

What hasn't been fully addressed yet is the long-term use of the building. "The library will continue to provide terrific services," she says. "We know the building will continue because people expressed a strong commitment to that, but what functions it will serve is what is going to be addressed by the advisory committee with input from the Hopkins community."

Over the last decade or so, a vast majority of the Welch Library's services have migrated online. This has allowed the library to better serve its community, Roderer notes, but means fewer visitors to the building. Academic libraries have also long provided study and meeting space for students and faculty. If fewer users are walking through the library doors, is there still a need for that space? "Each institution has to think for itself, What places do we have for students to study, and should the library be one of those?" Roderer says.

Johns Hopkins students from the schools of Nursing, Public Health, and Medicine have more-convenient modern study spaces on the East Baltimore campus. Yet medical school graduate students have a limited amount of learning space, the final report notes, which the Welch Library could provide.

Even as collections have migrated online, libraries are becoming more important as a physical place, says Winston Tabb, the Sheridan Dean of University Libraries and a Welch Library Advisory Committee member. Students still value the library as a space in which to study and collaborate.

"For a time my colleagues at the Welch Library felt the library as a physical place was not as important as having all these electronic journals," Tabb says. "But they discovered when they talked with the community about closing the building that there was a more-desired use of the building than people imagined."

The first phase of renovations will transform the space to appeal to the doctoral students, Tabb says. Future changes could include using the space for events, similar to the model of the university's George Peabody Library in Mount Vernon, which is rented out at designated times, he says. Further changes will come from the work of the advisory committee as well as with input from a new director who will succeed Roderer, Tabb says.

One aspect of the Welch Library, and all university libraries, is that the users and their expectations are constantly changing, Tabb notes, so the use of the building will continue to evolve. "What we are all trying to do now is have any changes in libraries be as flexible as possible," he says. "We need flexibility and the notion that there will be regular change."