Collective amnesia: reversing the global epidemic of addiction library closures


Special libraries in the addiction field have been downsized or closed at an alarming rate during the past decade. This editorial describes what is happening, why, and what can be done to prevent further erosion of contemporary and historical records so vital to an interdisciplinary field.

If you have a garden and a library you have everything you need (Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero)

How is it that an academic field can come so far and then erase itself? Is it, as Harry Eyres remarked in his Financial Times column entitled ‘In praise of libraries’, that we have philistines in our midst [1]? How else does one explain the decisions by those in charge to downsize or close libraries and databases, which have grown up with the alcohol and other drug (AOD) field?


In 2003 the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the renowned US agency focusing on alcohol research, de-funded ETOH, its alcohol science bibliographic database. It was considered too costly and a duplication of Medline.

Let us examine the rationale. ETOH's cost was less than one-tenth of 1% of the NIAAA's 428 million dollar budget; $400 000 a year to track a goldmine of the world's alcohol research. For more than 33 years, ETOH abstracted the contents of 120 000 biomedical and socio-cultural journal articles, books, reports and government documents; the literature on alcohol use, abuse, research, prevention, treatment, policy and history. ETOH indexed 55 AOD-specific journals, significantly more than PubMed. In 2003 there were 70 AOD journals [2].

With just one shortsighted decision ETOH was discontinued, leaving the alcohol research community without its ongoing compilation of the research literature.

Since then, further cuts have affected other US libraries and databases, resulting in downsizing, service reduction and closures. In 2006, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) closed its library—a collection dating from 1935. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) closed its prevention library and cut support to Regional Alcohol and Drug Awareness Resource (RADAR) centers, created to disseminate AOD government agency publications.

Europe joined the culling effort with library closures/downsizing at the Trimbos Institute (the Netherlands); Alcohol Concern, Drug Scope and the Temperance Alliance (UK); Toxibase (France); and Gruppo Abele (Italy). Some of these organizations maintain online information portals, but collections have been packed up, databases and catalogues terminated and/or staff positions eliminated. 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.


Library services provide added value and are cost-efficient. They are an integral part of any research program and librarians have traditionally been involved in the research process. When budgets are cut, why is this service targeted? One could argue that information needs are met by new and ever-expanding technology and the internet—the ‘Googlization’ myth, the notion that everything is on the internet, and everyone has access. If so, why do centers of research and learning have to support collecting and managing materials, both print and electronic, and personnel to do this? Is everything not digital and free? The answers are not straightforward.

It is not the case that everything is free online. The majority of scholarly literature cannot be accessed readily through search engines and websites due to the proprietary nature of information or copyright. Excluding PubMed, most research databases are available only through paid subscription, and often do not provide the full-text article.


The role of librarians in this new environment is not transparent. Behind the scenes librarians are negotiating and licensing online subscriptions to journals and databases, integrating free and licensed resources for ease of access and providing documents efficiently and cost-effectively through interlibrary loan and document delivery networks. They develop valuable subject expertise and become knowledgeable on how and where to find information efficiently.

What happened to the notion of the library as a place to read, study, learn and meet with colleagues? One of the oldest institutions in society, the library is often seen as the quintessential place that makes a community, whether within a city neighborhood, a university campus or a research center. Have we lost all sense of this?

Losing the physical presence of the library puts historical material at risk of being lost or inaccessible. Why discard print collections without ensuring archival preservation, when just one small technical shutdown could cut off information? What are we losing with an ideology which promulgates a throw-away mentality? If specialized institutions will not take responsibility for preserving the field's information resources, who will?


  • 1Collaborate to preserve. Strategies to preserve the knowledge base and ensure that its sustainability must involve funders, management, researchers and librarians working together to end ATOD library closures; preserve core collections; and promote good practice to meet information needs [3].
  • 2Call on governments and foundations for funding. A clarion call is essential. Associations that cross over institutions and include influential members of the research community must ensure that standards in conducting research include library support. The Kettil Bruun Society (KBS) and the International Society of Addiction Journal Editors (ISAJE) took the lead in 2007, passing resolutions to confirm the necessity of library collections and services in support of research.
  • 3Create digital repositories and digitize. To preserve and set parameters for collections, AOD digital repositories are essential. Many AOD libraries have valuable historical collections, but few have funds to digitize. The grey literature, in particular, is at risk of being lost. Representatives of Substance Abuse Librarians and Information Specialists (SALIS) and European Association of Libraries and Information Services on Addictions (ELISAD), along with the field's scholars, should work together to identify key documents and develop standards and procedures for such repositories, building on some of the large, non-profit digitization projects such as the Internet Archive.


The internet has created a paradigm shift in the way information is published, searched and retrieved, affecting the perceived value of libraries and librarians. In this uncertain environment, access to the historical and current literature of the AOD field must not be compromised. The research community must ensure that libraries still have a place, and that digitization and digital repositories are also part of the AOD information landscape.

Declarations of interest