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Is the field's historical record fading away?

June 18, 2012
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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SALIS warns of dire consequences to library closures
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 Asking “How is it that an academic field can come so far and then erase itself?”, a dwindling group of substance abuse research librarians is seeking to call the addiction field into action before their organizations tumble into extinction.

A strongly worded editorial published online June 12 in the journal Addiction makes a compelling case for addiction field libraries’ role in furthering knowledge among treatment professionals and researchers, but the editorial’s appearance also comes with some disappointing irony. Since the first drafting of the article text more than four years ago, more libraries have shut operations as the article underwent revisions and its authors experienced other delays.

“Every three or four months, another librarian leaves our organization because another library closes,” says Andrea Mitchell, executive director of Substance Abuse Librarians and Information Specialists (SALIS), an organization with a current membership that is down about 60 from a level of 143 just a decade ago.

While addiction professionals can be fiercely attached to the historical context of their profession, it remains difficult to rally the field around the health of research libraries and databases at a time when many individuals assume that any document they need can be accessed for free somewhere online. Not so, say members of SALIS (http://salis.org), who represent libraries housed at institutions such as research centers, government agencies and alcohol industry operations.

SALIS members do have some well-known allies in their effort, such as William White, the nation’s most prominent chronicler of the field’s history. White, senior research consultant with Chestnut Health Systems, sent a comment to Addiction Professional in regard to SALIS’s effort; it read in part:

“The worst of our professional history will repeat itself if the lessons of our history are lost. The best of our clinical practice will erode if we lose the repositories of scientific and experiential knowledge upon which they are based. We risk becoming a profession unguided by memory, knowledge and wisdom.”

Federal moves

Mitchell says pivotal developments occurred in 2003 and 2006 when the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), respectively, discontinued their science library collection operations. At the time of NIAAA’s move, officials there suggested that maintaining the library generally represented an unnecessary cost because of the existence of online databases.

But as Mitchell and her co-authors pointed out in the Addiction article, NIAAA’s former ETOH database (ETOH is the chemical name for alcohol) indexed 55 addiction-specific journals, which they said is significantly more than what can be found on PubMed.

Along with the moves by the national research institutes, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in recent years closed its prevention library and cut funding for Regional Alcohol and Drug Awareness Resource centers that disseminated alcohol and other drug agency publications.

The editorial states, “More than 25 libraries or databases have closed in the past decade. Not only have we lost the information base, but the expertise of the librarians.”

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