Doing Things Differently: Informationists at the Welch Medical Library

In April of this year, we heard our library–which has gone, over its 190 years of history, from being a medical library to a health sciences library to its current iteration as the Life Sciences Library–would likely be “moved” or “merged” into the science and engineering library at our institution (as librarians and staff, we tend to use the word “closed” when referring to this, which is an interesting reflection on semantics). What would this be like? Could it be done? Should it be done? We were really curious to know how things were going at Johns Hopkins.

In her talk called “The Library Without Walls: How We Moved Out of the Welch Library Building and Continued to Improve Our Services,” Jaime Blanck spoke energetically about their informationists’ move into what they call the 2024 Building and out of the Welch Library Building. They now have a multitude of service points and have put considerable communications efforts into reaching out to their patrons in novel ways, among them: through social media, participating in poster sessions at their institution, “tabling” (staffing information tables around campus to provide in-person meet and greets to answer questions–the importance of free swag was emphasized), and most recently the introduction of virtual office hours. The Library goes to their patrons.

So is the Welch Library Building, without librarians but still housing books and providing study space, a library? What is a library? While they are currently adding group study space and doing various other renovations to the Welch Library Building, I think it’s fair to say it is a complex scenario.

I also have to say their situation is completely different from ours. We do not have an iconic library building to preserve. The timeline mentioned to us at our institution was significantly shorter, to put it mildly. We are still called librarians. Our library system is increasingly centralized. We will no longer be the Life Sciences Library, and we’re facing large budget cuts, which is a significant factor.

I left the session with other questions like: How does use of the term “informationist” impact librarianship more generally? Is there any impact, if any, of the changes on accreditation (one can probably safely conclude none, in their case)?

I also left the talk with the feeling that they had put a meticulous amount of planning—years of it, in fact—into their communication plan, into staffing issues, and into new models of service delivery. If it was a painful experience, I did not get that feeling from the talk. They did it, and they are still doing it. There is a 573-page (!) Final Report with more information, a reflection of their effort to make the process as transparent as possible. It includes a strategic planning document from November 2008. It mentions a decade-long process. They planned. They consulted. They were–and they are–agile, but tempered.

Interestingly, my spell check still won’t accept the word “informationist.” It may not be long before it is.