This week is libraries week. Christine Goodair and Rob Calder stand on a small stepladder to shout about why libraries are better than the internet and why specialist addictions and academic libraries are so important. Before being hushed to a whisper and apologising for the disturbance.

The internet is not a library

The internet has changed the role of libraries, but perhaps not as much as you might think. It used to be that libraries were a core source of information, reference material, reading and knowledge. There are now, however, more resources on our phones than in even the biggest libraries. So, aside from finding somewhere quiet for a rare moment of calm, is there still a need for libraries?

In many ways the internet has created desert of abundance; a world of constant, contradictory, changing and dubious information that can, at times, be as useful as a world of no information whatsoever. To quote Harry Nilsson (thankfully rare in academic settings), “a point in all directions, is the same as no point at all”. Your library is still a good source of information, the kind that might just help you make sense of the maelstrom raging outside.

A library is not the internet

Contrary to popular belief, not everything is available online; there are paywalls and pay-per-view articles. Some things are only ever kept in books and on paper. Information, books and articles, journals, videos, e-journals are usually free in the library. They are acquired from reliable sources. There is quality control, they are ordered so that you can find what you want (googlelessly) because it will be in the right place. And if it is not obvious, there will be a helpful librarian on hand to help you. As Neil Gaiman said, “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.”

It is also worth a note about what isn’t in your local library. There isn’t a comments section below every book chapter. You don’t have to scroll through adverts to get to the relevant text. There isn’t a seemingly relevant article produced by whoever made “Gavin’s blog page”. There is no Twitter, no Facebook. There are no likes, retweets or selfies. No DS or DD. No book ever went viral in a library. You are never click-baited into the 19th century Russian literature section with a listicle of Tolstoy’s top ten dinner party recipes. The more I write, the more I want to live in a library.

Addiction and libraries

A library is so much more than its Dewey classified contents. In the US, many public libraries responded to the opioid crisis by providing information on addiction, prevention, treatment, and recovery support. Many libraries trained staff to use naloxone to help reverse overdoses.

Libraries have provided support during COVID too, many libraries are now community centres with art, community groups and locally led support available.

Specialist addiction libraries

Many specialist addiction libraries have been downsized or closed since the 2000s. In the UK, the specialist libraries of DrugScope and Alcohol Concern were well known and well used, but like many in Europe, the US and Canada, are now closed.

An editorial in Addiction from 2012 highlighted this loss of specialist libraries. Calls for funding went largely unheeded but with the advent of the internet the call to establish digital repositories was taken forward.

Thanks to the commitment of a group of addiction librarians and information specialists from SALIS the ‘SALIS Collection’ was set up in 2014 and is now a multidisciplinary digital library of over 5,700 books and documents and texts of key significance to the alcohol, tobacco and other drugs field. The collection holds books from North America, Europe, and Australia, in English and other languages.

Key addictions libraries (they weren’t all closed)


Academic libraries

People who work in universities are in the fortunate position of having access to resources via their institutions. But if you do not have access to institutional libraries, what can you do? Prior to the internet, libraries and information services provided bulletins listing new publications alongside bibliographies and reading lists. Today, much of this is still available online; for example, you can subscribe to the SSA newsletter, HRB Drug Library’s newsletter, ASH News, Drugwise Daily, Australian  Alcohol  and Drug Foundation, EMCDDA newsletterAddiction Professionals (previously SMMGP), and the Greater Manchester Mental Health Library and Knowledge Services  produce regular bulletins on substance use research and substance use and COVID-19 with occasional bulletins on such topics as medical cannabis, new psychoactive substances, substance use and mental health.

On Twitter you can follow feeds from the SSA, ASH, Alcohol Change UK and more. But let’s face it, you know how to use Twitter, and this post isn’t about Twitter, so don’t forget that you can also go to your local library. In person. To read.

SSA resources

On the SSA website, our ‘Reading Around’ series is a toolbox of articles that directs you to further sources of information. These are not intended to provide in-depth information about the topic but to give you an introduction to a subject along with links to high-quality resources and evidence. Reading Around can save you time.

In the News section there are many articles such as our step-by-step guide to systematic reviews. It this article we recommend that when developing your search strategy “You absolutely must speak to your friendly academic librarian about this. They will look at your question and be able to advise on which databases to search and which keywords to use.” Do not underestimate the benefits of knowing a good librarian.

In September, we ran The Pregnancy Edit. This is an example of how the SSA works to bring a diverse and sometimes confusing literature together. We plan to do more of this kind of collection, please get in contact with ideas, or if you would like to guest edit a series.

See also:

Edited on 6 October 2021 to add link to the DrugScope library.

The opinions expressed in this post and podcast reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official positions of the SSA.

The SSA does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of the information in external sources or links and accepts no responsibility or liability for any consequences arising from the use of such information.


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