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Graduate and Professional School Libraries

Countway Library

Countway Library


Harvard Medical School

Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine

Report of Isaac Kohane, Director



The mission of the Countway Library of Medicine is to foster the advancement of education, research, scholarship and professional practice in medicine, biological sciences, public health, and dentistry by

  • ensuring access and linkage to the world's literature in the biomedical and relevant social sciences;
  • exploring and promoting effective utilization of information and knowledge;
  • educating library users in the principles and techniques of information management;
  • preserving an historical record through its scholarly, rare book, and archival collections; and
  • creating a stimulating and synergistic setting for intellectual growth.

Principal Challenges and Responses

  • Journal Costs
    The pressure on our collections budget due to ever-increasing journal subscription rates imposed by the journal publishers, together with the unceasing demand for new resources by our patrons, is unsustainable. Countway leadership hosted a "Town Hall" at the Medical School this past spring to bring this situation to the attention of our faculty. We continue to participate actively in the national open-access activities and are working with the National Institutes of Health in implementing the NIH Public Access Policy at Harvard.
  • Space Constraints
    As money for capital improvement diminishes and the demand for space becomes intense, space constraints have become a challenge. Study space for students and space to house collections continue to be a top priority. We have brought the space issue forward to the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME), which is the nationally recognized accrediting authority for medical education programs, and it is included in their report as a priority.

Collections and Service Highlights

  • Countway's virtual "front door," the Countway web site (, continues to be regularly updated and improved. This past year, we improved the class registration module, updated the digital library database, improved the authentication/authorization methods used, and developed web services to key functionality on the site.

  • Countway has made significant advances this year in being included in the medical school curriculum. Students are now being exposed to a much wider range of resources to draw upon as they advance in their basic science and clinical training. Improvements in student responses to questions and in their ability to find answers quickly have been noticed by faculty.
  • Countway staff are now teaching more than 20 nanocourses (short courses of from one hour to three hours) in many areas of bioinformatics, ranging from microarray analysis of gene expression to the informatics of microscopic image analysis. Over 3,000 people attended these classes in the past year. The classes have been extremely popular, filling up within a week of being posted. We have many one-on-one sessions helping people with basic research problems.
  • Countway's Center for the History of Medicine joined with peer libraries to initiate a digital Medical Heritage Library. The work is funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to the Open Knowledge Commons, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building a universal digital library for democratic access to information. Approximately 30,000 volumes of public-domain works will be digitized from the collections of some of the world's leading libraries, including the National Library of Medicine, the Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library at Columbia University, and the New York Public Library. Countway Library will contribute a large number of works in public health, psychiatry, obstetrics, and other areas of social medicine.
  • The Countway Library celebrated the bicentennial of Oliver Wendell Holmes's birth with a new Center for the History of Medicine exhibit, The Scalpel and the Pen: The Life and Work of Oliver Wendell Holmes, MD, touching on all the different sides of the personal and professional career of this Boston original. We held the Oliver Wendell Holmes Bicentennial Symposium in November 2009, and featured speakers contributed essays in honor of the bicentennial to a published volume edited by Scott H. Podolsky and Charles S. Bryan.
  • Making accessible Countway's hidden collections is one of the most urgent challenges facing the Center for the History of Medicine. This past year the Center created a Metrics Database tool to support the testing and development of new workflows that enable pre-professional student assistants to speed processing and thereby freeing professional archivists for more demanding analytical and descriptive tasks. Additionally, the Center has reduced the number of inaccessible and unprocessed collections by using modest financial gifts to a "Discovery Fund" to create temporary processing support positions for pre-professionals. Ordinarily, resource constraints make it difficult to rapidly respond to researchers' requests for access to unprocessed collections; the Discovery fund provides the flexibility needed to shift staff to the most in-demand collections at the point they are needed for research. Discovery funds made it possible to "process on demand" the recently acquired personal papers, 1915–1981, of John C. Rock, the co-inventor of the birth control pill.

  • DSpace ( has been in use within the Countway Library since 2007 to solve a variety of challenges related to open access and the sharing of digital content published or created by the faculty at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health. Over 3,100 items are currently in the collections within the Countway DSpace Repository.

  • HMscholar ( has been developed to fully support open access at HMS with information, tools and local collection submission and management.

  • The CiviCRM Customer Relationship Management system has been developed to allow Countway staff to keep track of key members of our community who have frequent interaction with the library.

  • The Omeka collection presentation system has been developed to allow for rapid development and publishing of online, digital collections from the Center for the History of Medicine.

  • We are in the process of developing a system, which we call SUSHI, that will integrate usage information from publishers along with our collection management databases in order to provide an up-to-date view of the use of licensed digital resources by our community. This system is originally focused on decision management for our Collections department but may also provide useful information for other library departments and our user community.

  • Many of the Countway collections staff were actively involved in activities that would allow for more flexible use of the space within the library. Projects included: (1) Stabilizing the condition of the historical journals on the lower level of the library, many of which are brittle or damaged with acid paper, age, poor handling, and photocopying; (2) making more space for newer journals that are not yet available electronically; and (3) evaluating the monograph collection for its current usefulness.

Collaboration with Other Harvard Libraries

We work closely with many groups at Harvard. These groups include the Harvard Medical School Information Technology group, Harvard University Library (HUL) committees, and the HUL Office for Information Systems. Specific collaborative activities this past year included the following.

  • The Center for the History of Medicine collaborated with staff of the Weissman Preservation Center to enable access to the Center's Jean-Martin Charcot collection of glass-plate negatives, an example of the impact of preservation on research access.
  • SFX Bypass software was developed at Countway and released to the Office for Information Systems for general use. The software provides streamlined access to digital resources by bypassing the confusing SFX menu, which asks users to choose from a list of sites in order to find their digital resource. The tool captures expert knowledge from the Countway reference staff in order to automatically pick the best destination for the requested digital content.
  • Countway is an active participant in the committee to develop the EASi e-mail archiving system.
  • Countway is an active participant in the committees to select and implement the virtual reference system (VRSIT-LibAnswers).
  • Countway staff continue to work closely with other science libraries at Harvard through the Science Libraries Council.


The pace of change for our library, our community, and biomedical research is rapid. It is being driven by the vast amount of information that is continuously being created by the research community. The library selects and provides access to licensed online information sources and print materials, preserves and provides access to resources of significant historical interest, educates students and researchers in working with information both efficiently and effectively, and develops new tools for the organization and analysis of information. We continue to work closely with outside groups in order to provide a high level of service and to leverage services and expertise across the University.