Twenty Years and Thriving: Stanford Hospital Health Library Opens Fourth Branch at Oshman Family Jewish Community Center

Gwen Pinkston Portrait
When Gwen Pinkston was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago, her daughter suggested she could find answers to some of her questions from the Stanford Hospital Health Library.

For a decade, the same radiologist read Gwen Pinkston's mammograms. Then one day she took one look and said, "I don't like this." Within days, physicians diagnosed Pinkston with a small cancerous tumor in her right breast.

The doctors also talked about treating her with a new approach called intraoperative radiation- then in clinical trials at Stanford Hospital, but already demonstrating good results. Pinkston wanted to know about this technique, about her particular cancer and about other options. Her daughter thought she had the perfect answer. "Call my friend at the Stanford Hospital Health Library, the branch at the Cancer Center," she said. "I know she can help you."

Soon, Pinkston was working with Stanford Health librarian Nancy Dickenson at the library's Cancer Center branch. Dickenson, like the Library's other experienced medical librarians, had access to a broad range of resources to compile a packet individualized for Pinkston. "We went back and forth for several days," Pinkston said. "She was amazing because she found all kinds of articles for me, all kinds of Web sites. She got articles out of medical Web sites I couldn't get into."

With Dickenson's help in finding the particular information useful for Pinkston, she began her treatment with an increased confidence in the outcome. She decided to have the new therapy; she has been cancer-free for six years. "Without Nancy," she said, "I don't know if I would have gone to a health library for help."

"We always knew what the cutting edge was and aimed for that."
-Barbara Ralston, Stanford Hospital Vice President for Guest Services and International Medicine

This year, the Stanford Hospital Health Library celebrates its 20th anniversary, and the opening of a new, 1.500-wquare-foot branch at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center. That new branch, and another to be opened soon at an East Palo Alto health clinic, furnishes five locations for the patients, their families and others whose need to find answers is unique and immediate.

Beginnings - and a new location

Each branch has a collection crafted to include materials that reflect its location: the Cancer Center library has the most information about cancer. The Hospital’s collection has more material about surgery, transplants and cardiac issues – the primary causes for hospitalization.

The newest branch, at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in South Palo Alto, which is adjacent to the Moldaw Family Residences for seniors, offers classes, lectures and activities with older adults in mind. The educational programs were developed at the Stanford Research Prevention Center, the Stanford Patient Education Research Center and the Hospital's Aging Adults Services. Physicians and staff from the Hospital will teach all the classes.

JCC Health Library image The newest branch of the Stanford Hospital Health Library and Resource Center, at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in South Palo Alto, has plenty of room for readers.The Health Library was one of the very first hospital-based libraries in the U.S. to open with such a focused collection. “It was the dawn of consumer awareness,” said Barbara Ralston, the Hospital’s Vice-President for Guest Service and International Medicine. “We’d moved from ‘Dr. Spock’ to ‘Our Bodies, Our Selves.’ People were starting to have dialogs with their physicians.”

The value of this information hit home with Ralston around the same time. She became ill far from home and couldn’t find anywhere with information about her illness. “I felt paralyzed and helpless,” she said. When she returned to Palo Alto, she volunteered to join an effort, in its early stages, to open a health library that the Hospital would support.

The first branch opened at the Stanford Shopping Center. “Our assumption was that people would stop by and ask questions about colds and flus,” Ralston said. “Instead, we had people walking over from the Hospital with their IV poles in tow. We had people coming in saying, ‘My significant other was just given a devastating diagnosis.’  We were supposed to be a mom and pop project, but we always knew what the cutting edge was and aimed for that.”

Within two years, the Hospital branch was open. The Library had advisory and review boards filled with Stanford Hospital physicians and others. “There was nothing in the library that wasn’t vetted by a Stanford physician or someone with proper qualifications,” Ralston said.

New Technology

“The biggest difference between the early days of the library and now is technology,” said the Library’s Director, Nora Cain. “We just have access to so much more now. The Internet has changed the game. And our library, unlike some, is able to give people access to information from many sources, not just one or ones designated by their doctor.”

The Library’s current holdings include 8,000 catalogued volumes, 700 health-related videos, a database of nearly 400 medical journals, thousands of articles from 2,200 general interest publications and a large Chinese language consumer health collection. The Library was the first part of the Hospital to have its own Web page. It also began capturing physician talks and publications as archived and accessible documents and videos.

The Library gets requests for information from around the world for everything in the health spectrum, Cain said. The OFJCC branch in South Palo Alto is also a resource center with expanded programming and space for classes and support group meetings.

"Illness makes you feel helpless. Knowledge is power."
-David Spiegel, MD, Director, Stanford Hospital Center for Integrative Medicine

Health lectures are held throughout the year and cover topics from all clinical services at the Hospital. Many of the lectures are videotaped and accessible through YouTube and the University’s iTunes collection. Sixty of those videos are available for purchase. The lecture series is also recounted quarterly in an electronic newsletter, Notes from the DocTalks, archived on the Library’s Web site.

While technology may be the means to transport information, Ralston said, “it’s still about one human being helping another.”

The new branch at the OFJCC, on the other side of the city from the Hospital, Ralston said, allows the Health Library can reach out to the general community. And we have an onboard group of patrons.”

Gwen Pinkston in her kitchen
Gwen Pinkston has been cancer-free for six years.

Gwen and Art Pinkston in vintage car
Pinkston now lives an active life that includes enjoying the vintage car she and her husband, Art, own and cherish. Gwen Pinkston mending clothes

Valuable Help

The Library has always been strongly supported by the Hospital’s physicians, including Sarah Donaldson, MD, an oncologist who decided she wanted to volunteer there. “I just wanted to learn more about it, and to refine my own computer skills.”  Since then, part of her conversation with her patients involves resources so they can learn more. “When I am their doctor, I tell them about the resources that are available. And if it’s a patient with cancer, I tell them about the library and the support groups in the same breath as I’m telling them about everything else,” Donaldson said.

When she does that, she knows she may have avoided a common problem. “Physicians do their best to educate their patients, but maybe you’re starting at the wrong level, or the patient’s not really listening to what you’re saying,” she said. “Many patients get their information from the Internet. And a lot of patients get misinformed by going to an inappropriate source.”  Ultimately, she said, “It’s much more rewarding as a physician to see a patient who knows a lot about what they’re dealing with.”

The availability of so much information can be problematic, said David Spiegel, the Hospital’s Director for the Center of Integrative Medicine, an early supporter of the Library. “With the Internet, you can go from too little to too much. Health care is ever more sophisticated and complicated. There is more information out there than any one human being can handle, no matter how smart or educated they are. The Health Library plays an important role.”

"We went back and forth for several days. She found all kinds of articles for me."
-Gwen Pinkston, former Stanford Hospital patient

Spiegel, one of the first physicians to study the value of medical treatment that included support groups, understands very well the shock of a serious diagnosis. “Illness makes you feel helpless. In the case of cancer, your body turns on you. One of my patients told me he’d started to think of his body as a dog that wouldn’t obey,” he said. “And knowledge is power.”



•print, online, databases, video, online books

Personal Touch:

•Health Library librarians have special knowledge of available medicine and health materials

•Librarians prepare information packets customized to each patron's needs

Community Programs:

•Free lectures and programs at the Health Library are held at all its branches and at the Redwood City Public Library. This month's programs and lectures at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center include:

•Wednesdays, 10:30 am. Strong for Life, an exercise program designed by physical therapists for older adults to improve strength, balance and overall health.

For more information and a calendar of events, visit


Oshman Family Jewish Community Center 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto 650.855.9396 Hours: 10am-6pm Mon-Fri

Stanford Hospital 300 Pasteur Dr., Palo Alto 650.725.8100 Hours: 9am-5pm Mon-Fri

Stanford Cancer Center 875 Blake Wilbur Dr., Palo Alto 650.736.1713 Hours: 9am-5pm Mon-Fri

Main Branch Stanford Shopping Center Palo Alto, 650.725.8400 Hours: 10am-6pm Mon-Sat, until 9pm thursday

All research searches are free, and available by email. 800.295.5177, TTY: 650.723.1216


Having someone mediate the flood of information is a valuable tool in moving forward. The help of a medical librarian “can help them prepare mentally for the next step,” Donaldson said. “Sometimes it can help them make decisions about their treatment options because they have enough to really look at those options, based on scientifically-based information. They can feel more confident about their decision and have a more meaningful dialog with their physician.”

“We help people get started,” Ralston said, “to get centered, to develop a base of knowledge, to move step by step at their own speed.”

Plans for the new Stanford Hospital include a library that will serve as a health information commons, she said. “We’ll be developing our technology capabilities but we’ll also be looking at ways to personalize our services even more.”

Personal they will always be. Stanford Health Library librarian Carmen Huddleston cannot forget the evening a man came in, just as she was closing the library. He was clearly upset. “His son had had a very serious head injury and the father wanted to know about a treatment using lowered body temperature. I pulled him some information. I even found the article he’d remembered reading. He was so happy. He just wanted information.”

His father came back later to tell Huddleston that his son had survived.

Since her experience with the help available at Stanford’s Health Library, Pinkston has talked to friends who’ve been diagnosed with cancer. “They come out of their doctor’s office with sketchy info. It was really important for me to have that help from Stanford.”

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