Last month at the Charleston Conference I attended a presentation by Jim Dooley from the University of California at Merced. UC-Merced formally opened in the fall of 2005 as ‘the first American research university of the 21st century.’ As Head of Collection Services, Dooley had an opportunity that few librarians get, to build a collection from scratch based solely on the needs of current and future users. The UC-Merced Library expected to offer only online journals and–with a handful of exceptions–that has turned out to be the case. They also expected to build a modest print book collection that would quickly be replaced by electronic books. This has not yet taken place; the library has acquired 100,000 print books and the collection continues to grow along with their ebook holdings.
Why continue to collect print books? Why continue to hold older print books that have not been used recently? There are a number of reasons that Wesleyan has not gone (print) bookless:
Availability: Many scholarly books are only available in print form. Ebooks now make up a third of the adult fiction/non-fiction trade book market in the U.S., and that share is increasing. Not all U. S. trade books are available in electronic form, but it is fast-growing and profitable segment of the market. Scholarly books, however, are lagging behind trade books in this respect, even those published in countries with widespread access to advanced technology. And scholarly books from other parts of the world are usually available only in print.
Copyright limitations: It is possible to make copies of print books and share the copies in violation of copyright—remember the warning signs next to photocopiers? But the physical nature of print books naturally restricts the scope of these violations. Unrestricted ebooks, on the other hand, can be quickly and easily copied and made available to anyone with access to the Internet. To protect copyright holders and publishers from illegal and ruinous wholesale sharing of ebooks, their use has been restricted in ways that are inconvenient for scholars. Print books also have their inconveniences, but we take these for granted and so they are less annoying.
Incomplete contents: Each illustration in a book may have a different copyright holder or holders, which makes clearing copyright for electronic publication much more complex than for books without illustrations. (Of course, copyright must be cleared for illustrations in print books as well, but the process for doing this is well-established among publishers and creators.) The difficulties in clearing copyright for illustrations in ebooks has led some presses—Yale University Press most notoriously—to omit illustrations from the electronic version of some of their books.
Bad scans: It is possible to access electronic versions of many older, out-of-copyright books through Google Books, Hathi Trust, or elsewhere. Because of the high-volume process by which many of these books have been scanned and the scans validated, some pages can be unreadable, illustrations unclear, and fold-out pages missing altogether.
Technical limitations: Kindles and other e-book readers are ideal for reading fiction or any book that is read straight through. But when scholars and students use a book for study, they move back and forth through the pages, take notes, and bookmark significant passages. These things are more difficult to do in an ebook than in a print book, although e-reader and tablet manufacturers are working hard to make these functions seamless for the reader.
The book as artifact: At Wesleyan and elsewhere, courses are taught that involve studying books as objects—objects of art, historical artifacts, and items of physical culture. This may include using technology to analyze a book in interesting ways—the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a wonderful example—but in most cases the analysis requires access to the volume itself, not merely to an electronic representation of it.
Preserving the scholarly record: Every library holds books that are rare—whether or not they are valuable or held in Special Collections. And libraries take very seriously our responsibility to preserve the scholarly and creative record in its original form, both for future study and to await improved methods of digitization. Several library groups—including one in the Northeast that includes Wesleyan—are considering the creation of regional depositories for print books. Some may be centralized facilities for holding print books for preservation and use. But because of the difficulty in funding a central depository, other groups are considering a distributed model in which libraries make a commitment to retain certain books for a specific number of years. With few exceptions print book depositories are in the exploratory or planning stages, and not yet established.
A number of academic libraries have moved their books off-site, leaving their library building ‘bookless.’ So far these have been libraries specific to disciplines that primarily communicate via journal articles or other short-form publications rather than monographs. With few exceptions, journal articles are available in a convenient, easily discoverable and accessible electronic form, and students and researchers are comfortable relying on electronic access. Examples of bookless libraries include the William H. Welch Medical Library at Johns Hopkins; the Applied Engineering and Technology Library at University of Texas, San Antonio; and the James B. Hunt Jr. Library at North Carolina State.
Ebooks are at the stage electronic journals were 10 or 15 years ago—they show great promise, but are still awkward and often unreliable. As scholarly ebooks become more convenient to use, many of the concerns about the disappearance of print books will fade, just as happened with print indexes and journals. The difference will be that even after the conversion of most of the circulating book collection to a convenient online format, there will still be a place in the library for the codex.
Print books will continue to be essential both for the sensory experience of using them, and for the evidence they give of the past and the cultures that produced them. And library services, resources and facilities will continue to be essential for the same reason they are essential now—to select and provide access to resources (in whatever form) that are needed by our users, and to help them successfully navigate the overwhelming and always-changing information landscape.
Random articles on the bookless library
Bell, David A. The Bookless Library. New Republic. July 12, 2012. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/david-bell-future-bookless-library
Fister, Barbara. The Myth of the Bookless Library. Inside Higher Ed, November 15, 2011. http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library-babel-fish/myth-bookless-library#ixzz2mL08ALNR
Kelley, Michael. Major Medical Library Closing Its Doors to Patrons and Moving to Digital Model. Library Journal, October 27, 2011. http://www.thedigitalshift.com/2011/10/research/major-medical-library-closing-its-doors-to-patrons-and-moving-to-digital-model/
Kolowich, Steve. A Truly Bookless Library. Inside Higher Ed, September 17, 2010. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/09/17/libraries#ixzz2mL3pHtL8
Margolis, Simeon. Lost in the Stacks No More (October 1, 2010). Hopkins Medicine Magazine, Fall 2010. http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/publications/hopkins_medicine_magazine/fall_2010/lost_in_the_stacks_no_more
Milliot, Jim. A Mixed Blessing in Slowing E-book Sales. Publishers Weekly, Nov 15, 2013. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/retailing/article/60030-a-mixed-blessing.html
Newcomb, Tim. Is a Bookless Library Still a Library? TIME.com, July 11, 2011. http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2079800,00.html
Rock, Margaret. The Future of Libraries: Short on Books, Long on Tech. TIME.com, June 25, 2013. http://www.mobiledia.com/news/181239.html#ixzz2mKwYzJC0
Sanburn, Josh. A Bookless Library Opens in San Antonio. TIME.com, Sept. 13, 2013 A Bookless Library Opens in San Antonio | TIME.com http://nation.time.com/2013/09/13/a-bookless-library-opens-in-san-antonio/#ixzz2mKtfc4Uh
Schwartz, Meredith. Ebooks, Online Drive Trade Sales Growth. Library Journal, May 22, 2013. http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/05/publishing/ebooks-online-drive-trade-sales-growth/#_