The Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 22, 2001
January 22, 2001
VOL. 30, NO. 18


Innovation Drives Welch's Future

New director envisions 'virtual library' with access from anywhere

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Nancy Roderer, director of the William H. Welch Medical Library, says that in her line of work, innovation is essential.

A medical library reliant on books and journals lined up on stacks, Roderer says, is an antiquated operation. Her customer base requires the absolute latest facts, figures and theories, and all within the touch of a finger. With that in mind, Roderer envisions the dawn of the "virtual library" where a visitor can peruse the institution's full catalog from any remote site--a reality, she says, that is fast approaching.

"In some people's minds, they don't need a library anymore," says Nancy Roderer, director of the William H. Welch Medical Library. "But what is really happening is they have a new kind of need."

"These days we find that our users often don't come to the library physically; they come to it electronically," says Roderer, who took her post a year ago this month. "They access from a computer the books, journals, databases that are available here. In some people's minds, they don't need a library anymore. But what is really happening is they have a new kind of need."

Roderer's commitment to the virtual approach is bred of her three-word philosophy: "service, innovation, teamwork." The early results of her approach include enhancements made to the library's Web site, the establishment of a customer liaison program, development of new online resources, the purchase of new computer systems and an overall increase in the number of electronic materials to which the library provides access.

Currently, the library has more than 1,200 journals available electronically, and the plan is to put more journals and databases online steadily in the coming months and years.

Welch services the schools of Medicine, Nursing and Public Health, The Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Kennedy Krieger Institute--which comprise an estimated customer base of 18,000. In addition to its main branch at 1900 E. Monument St., the library has six satellites located at the various medical institutions. The building is named for the School of Medicine's first dean, William H. Welch, honoring his role in the library's creation and the founding of the Institute of the History of Medicine, also housed there. Welch, who was the institute's first director, envisioned the library as an epicenter for the retrieval and transmission of the most current clinical, epidemiological and laboratory findings, while also being a repository for the accumulated culture of medicine.

Like other medical libraries, Welch is primarily a journal-based operation that must meet the specific and timely demands of clinicians. Roderer gave the example of a physician going online to consult medical literature during a routine patient visit or just prior to an operation.

"Information is good for people, but people don't use information unless it is easy to find and interpret," Roderer says. "Thus the library is always working on ways to make the user's access to information easier and more efficient. That means a whole range of things, from providing information when and where it is needed to creating new packaging for information appropriate to particular types of needs."

With more people visiting the library electronically, Roderer saw the need to open a new line of communication with her customers. To that end, Welch now offers a liaison service for JHMI faculty, students and staff. Each department on the East Baltimore campus has been assigned to one of eight liaison librarians who act as both trouble-shooters and advocates. The intent of the service is to foster two-way communication and collaboration between the library and its users, focusing on needs assessment.

"In the paper world we spend a lot of time making sure that people can get physically to the item they want. But in the electronic world, although they can get there faster, users tend to have more questions: 'Is this a good document for me? Is this all the information there is on this subject?'" says Roderer, who also serves as interim director of the Division of Biomedical Information Science. "We find there are more in-depth kinds of questions that require a closer relationship between the librarian and the user. Our liaison service addresses that."

One offshoot of this dialogue is the recent modification of the library's Web site to render it more user-friendly, update the information and add new electronic resources. Roderer says that a more comprehensive site makeover is scheduled for sometime in 2001.

Another Web-related development is the new remote service dubbed RAUL, for Remote Access to University Libraries, which enables currently affiliated Hopkins faculty, students and staff to gain access to licensed e-resources via any Internet service provider. RAUL, developed by the university libraries and Hopkins Information Technology Services, is just one more step to virtual status, Roderer says.

Before coming to Hopkins, Roderer ran the training program for new medical librarians at the National Library of Medicine. Prior to that, Roderer, who holds degrees in math, computer science and library science, was director of Yale's Cushing/Whitney Medical Library for seven years.

She recalls the time when people filed by her door at Yale, often popping their heads into her office to ask a question. Today, many of her customers pass her in cyberspace, a fact she laments only slightly.

"What is important to me as a librarian is that people get the information they need to do their work," she says. "And there is every likelihood with a virtual library that people will get more of the information when and where they need it. That part is good."

Recently, Roderer's thoughts have been focused on how the library will look physically in the not-too-distant future. Ongoing efforts include meetings with architectural firms to study design concepts and the formation of an advisory committee to consider how the facility and services should evolve.

Roderer suspects that by 2015 all the materials library customers need on a regular basis will be available in electronic form, and many of the books in the library's on-campus stacks today will be put into the university's storage facility at Moravia Park.

"In a few years, most, if not all, journals will be available electronically," she says. "So in 2015 there will be a 10-year history of publications online. In medicine, that is often enough."

The year 2000 marked the 150th birthday of William H. Welch. When asked how Welch the man would react to a 21st-century version of the library he founded, Roderer says he likely would be very pleased.

"Dr. Welch was a sort of Renaissance man, with many interests and great energy," she says. "So I would guess that he would find innovative developments in the library, as they have happened over the entire period since its founding, quite appropriate."

For more information on the Welch Library, go to