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« Random shelving observations, with lots of pictures of books | Main | This Week's (Belated) Acquisitions »

November 06, 2009


Brian Ogilvie

I think that the library as a place will be around for a while, but I fear that physical printed material will occupy less and less of it, until it becomes a kind of museum--the entire library as a special collections department.

I'm one of the "vocal minority" of faculty on my campus who points out that there are disciplines whose current literature and classic works are still mostly print only, but also that printed primary sources will continue to be valuable. Some forms of research can't easily be done if material is in remote storage, such as going through decades' worth of runs of a journal.

And much of the discussion of library space seems to be driven by the perceived needs of undergraduates, not the graduate students and faculty. I use the analogy of lab space in the sciences: it's expensive, and few people use it, but it's still central to the research and teaching mission of the university. Alas, I don't seem to get as much traction with that analogy as I would like.

With sources, it's also important to develop a feel for how one's research subjects approached material. Just as there's no substitute for handling medieval manuscripts, there's no substitute for working with an early modern printed book, or a cheap 19th-century edition. I enjoy the utility of paid databases like EEBO and free ones like Gallica, and even Google Books (which just supplied me with a decent PDF of a 1617 theological treatise), but I hate to think of a generation of budding scholars who have never handled the real thing.


Amen to all you've said, especially #3.


There's nothing like holding a book in your hands. My students respond a lot better to a facsimile of a medieval codex that they can handle and turn pages in than to powerpoint slides with pictures from the original.

And, as you say, scanning books and articles hasn't been perfected yet. I came across an article in a well-respected database recently that was missing its first page! Fortunately another database had the same article, sans missing page. Of course, the first database also had the ads printed in the original journal, and the second didn't. This, I imagine, will be significant to some future scholar of advertising history.

Jane Le Galloudec

Earlier this year after the death of my aged aunt we offered a substantial collection of scientific books to Oxford University (where her late husband had been a professor of chemistry) only to be told that the science department no longer had a library - as all information was kept online. I am not sure this is progress!

Michael Steeleworthy

I would argue that even in the humanities - at least at the undergraduate level - that the traditional monograph is on its way out. At the same time, I think every claim that "the book is dead" or every question we make that questions if Print is a thing of the past is still premature.

Until e-readers can be produced and sold en masse at affordable prices, and until e-book vendors can toward a consensus on the look-and-feel of e-book interfaces, print will still dominate. There is no where near a critical mass of e-book readership in academe yet, and the interfaces from one vendor to another are hardly seamless. One day, perhaps, there will be, and given the fact that libraries can acquire between 4-6 times the amount of e-material than print material, I think we need to be ready for that future. But that future is not knocking down the door this term, and certainly not for another couple terms at least.

As for scholarship that requires the printed word - not just the content but its form - I don't think this will go away in the wake of electronic formats. This is a legitimate and strong part of many disciplines, that, frankly, will become even more more important as more and more of our culture is consumed in digital formats only.

-my two cents.

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