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Reaching out to Russia's strapped medical libraries

Keeping up to date with medical journals and texts is hard enough for busy physicians when they have the materials handy. In a country where national library systems have suffered near-stagnation for 10 years, it would be impossible—were it not for technology and goodwill.

Those two elements are now being supplied to several beleaguered medical libraries in Russia courtesy of Dartmouth Medical School and the University of Pennsylvania. Heading up the effort for DMS are Ellis Rolett, M.D., a cardiologist who has had extensive experience as an adviser to the National Library of Medicine, and William Garrity, M.A., director of Dartmouth's biomedical libraries.

The DMS visitors to Russia found this architecturally impressive reading room at the National Library of the Republic of Karelia in Petrozavodsk, but shelves that were nearly devoid of current medical journals and texts.

Lag: In post-Soviet Russia, medical libraries are faced with a decades-long lag in their journal collections—a result of the old philosophy of centralization and of today's severe shortage of funds to remedy the situation. The medical library in Petrozavodsk, for example, a city northeast of St. Petersburg, serves not only the medical school there but also the whole region of Karelia—yet, says Rolett, it is no larger than DMS's Dana Biomedical Library. And much of the collection reflects the Communist- era method of disseminating Western journals. Before 1990, Russia was not a signatory to international copyright laws. The central national library, strapped for funds, bought single subscriptions to journals and made photocopies for the regional libraries. Thus the stacks in these libraries, Rolett says, are filled with white binders containing these illegal copies—and not much else.

What the Russian libraries have on their side is the development of Internet technologies, which provide a new way of disseminating information. Instead of trying to fill in the gaping holes in the Russian holdings with actual books and journals, the American librarians have turned to electronic versions. They've had help from the Soros Foundation, which among other charitable activities in Russia is working to provide libraries with the hardware necessary to read and download printable copies of current publications.

Cartons: Rolett's son was in St. Petersburg, working for the Ben and Jerry's ice cream company, when Rolett became aware of the problem. At first, he says, "we sent medical textbooks through Ben and Jerry's shipments," but the impossibility of addressing the problem with cartons of books was evident from the very beginning.

"We began thinking more of the electronic ways of delivering literature," Rolett explains. A model library partnership project began in the fall of 1999, with funding from the U.S. National Library of Medicine (for more information on the project, see www.dartmouth.edu/~libnet/).

Skills: First, of course, it was necessary for the Russian librarians to develop the skills to make the new system work. The process began with a visit to the U.S. by two Russian librarians in October of 1999. They spent two weeks at DMS and a week at the University of Pennsylvania. The Russians were charged with going back and training other librarians, so eventually access to online services could be made available to faculty, students, and the public.

A conference in St. Petersburg in May of 2000 provided an opportunity for Dartmouth's envoys (including Rolett's wife, Virginia, and Garrity's wife, Deborah, who helped to organize the event) to get to know the Russians involved in the project and to assess local resources and capabilities. One thing was clear, says Rolett: the kinds of cooperative relationships that exist among universities here had been actively discouraged during the Soviet era.

Sharing: Introducing the idea of such cooperation was part of the Americans' task. "Since every library has limited resources, it's necessary to share," says Garrity, something that's taken for granted in this country. "But information isn't free," he adds. Although there are enormous amounts of medical information available online, text and journal services charge substantial sums for access. To the rescue came an American company that markets online books and journals; they agreed to make their materials available to the Russian libraries in Petrozavodsk and St. Petersburg without charge.

Plucking a library from thin air—with the help of technology —is probably the wave of the future for most biomedical libraries, according to Rolett and Garrity. "The half-life of medical information is so short, and the cost of building paper-based libraries so high, that this offers a great alternative delivery system," Garrity says. In fact, it's the sort of progress that might have been known in Communist times as a Great Leap Forward.

-Megan McAndrew Cooper

If you would like to offer any feedback about this article, we would welcome getting your comments at DartMed@Dartmouth.edu.

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