Thursday, March 18, 2010

Faultlines: Vital signs for hospital libraries

If you have not read the Vital Pathways report, out in the October 2009 issue of JMLA, I recommend it. This symposium, published as a group of articles, is the outcome of an initiative begun by the former MLA president MJ Tooey, in responding to numerous reports of hospital library closings, budget cuts, and job losses.

I had been anxiously anticipating it, because I was not able to find much on the status of hospital libraries, and for my dissertation research proposal, focused as it is on hospital librarians, an understanding of who we are seems important.

Following an unsuccessful attempt, just now, to find something - almost anything! - on a blog, from MLA, published, pre-published, scrawled on a wall somewhere, I report to you that I am underwhelmed by the voluminous reaction of the hospital and medical library community to this important report.

We've all always been vulnerable to economic vagaries. Reports from an earlier survey cite “major negative changes” (Ben Shir, 1989) that included budget cuts or layoffs (37%), downsizing (6%) and budget or hiring freezes (4%) at a time when managed care brought about increased competition for the healthcare dollar.

In Vital Pathways, once again, we have faultlines: the rate of library closings doubled during the years 2007-2009 (a change from 10% - 22% of respondents reporting this, and 23% - nearly a full quarter of of the 127 libraries involved - reported staff downsizing.  No clue here about whether these numbers are in any way representative, and no real way to become any less clueless, which I find incredibly weird.

I seem to always end with questions, so here are more: Does the Vital Pathways report pose questions that need to be asked, or that we're interested in asking (or attempting to answer)?  Are our only answers 'change or die'?  Is the hospital library our own Atlantis?  (I know - too much drama in that last!) Are we emulating healthcare itself, in that certain pieces of information are left unshared, a matter of mystique, a proprietary act of legerdemain?  I have seen no discussion about it all, post Report - it's as if we are holding our breaths. Probably, we're all too busy book-taping the fort together, getting through. 

From Carla Funk, on Medlib-L, in response to a question about how many hospitals have medical libraries:

It is estimated that there were between 5,795 (AHA) and 6,224
(Directory) hospitals in the U.S. in 2004/2005 based on AHA data and information in the Directory of Hospital Personnel, 2005 edition. According to the AHA, there were 6,853 registered hospitals in the U.S. in January 1990, a decline of 15.5% from the 2004 figure. It is further estimated that there were between 1,950 (NN/LM) and 2,513 hospital libraries (Directory of Hospital Personnel) in 2004/2005. According to the AHA, it is estimated that there were 3,030 hospital libraries in 1990. Therefore, comparing this figure to the 2004/2005 data, it is estimated that the number of hospital libraries has declined between 17.1% and 35.7% between 1990 and 2004/2005.
Among other responses in the topic summary:
"I have been trying to track this information for the past 19 years with absolutely no credible success."
More questions: why is this information nearly inaccessible - to the extent that it took several years to gather the information about library changes through the MLANet site?  Where is information about non-members of MLA (and why they are non-members), our brethren (sistern?)?

Hmmph. For a profession reliant upon data, etc. etc. Is this our way forward?

Ben-Shir, R.H. (1989, August). Survey confirms major changes in hospital libraries. MLA News, 217:8.

Funk, C. (2008, June 3). Response to topic on Medlib-L "SUMMARY: Percentage of hospitals with Medical Librarians. Retrieved from Medlib-L archives March 16, 2010.