Burning past the libraries

Today I drove up past Cambridge on some domestic business.  Being in the area, I wondered whether to pop in to Cambridge University library.  I didn’t, tho.  I didn’t feel the need. 

Last night I downloaded 10 volumes of Angelo Mai’s 1825 extravaganza, Scriptorum Veterum Collectio Nova, in which he published the finds he made in the Vatican library at the time.  Each was about 1,000 pages.

Volume 1 includes the first publication of several works by Eusebius, including the Quaestiones ad Stephanum / Marinum.  About 3 years back I went to Cambridge, and bought photocopies of those pages from that volume.  They charged me 25c per page — not cheap but by no means exorbitant in the crazy world of academic libraries.  I probably got 100 pages, and paid $25 for them; and was very glad to get them, and to be allowed to get a photocopy.  I had to wait a week for them to be done.

And now?  I hardly care about those books, because I can get the whole 1,000 pages from Google Books for nothing.  It hardly matters what CUL charge for photocopies of those books now; no-one will pay it.  How long before they realise that storing the physical books is a waste of time?

It has become acceptable among IT journalists to sneer at Google.  But let us not forget the many wonderful things we owe to the owners of that company, and their vision, and the free access to vast amounts of information and services.  Those living in unfree countries are robbed at every turn by petty officialdom, under the guise of laws and regulations, which must be obeyed, and hoops must be jumped through and fees paid — ahhhh, fees! — and in the process nothing happens and everyone is impoverished.  For even the most enthusiastic will be ground down when he has to ask permission of the lazy and indifferent to do anything.

Google has changed the world, and changed it markedly for the better.  I for one am grateful.

9 thoughts on “Burning past the libraries

  1. Living a long way from the major libraries of Europe and the USA I love the way I can now obtain some books that are NOT available in any Australian library. However:
    1. It is still hit and miss, a lot is still not available even though it is out of copyright.
    2. A lot more that I need is still not available because of the complexities of copyright – some books that are by Australian law out of copyright may still be in copyright in Europe or North America.
    3. I worry about the future – the one where most libraries pulp their older books because nobody is using them – and THEN Google decides its time to impose charges.

    As an academic librarian I can see a future where libraries are fun places for social interaction while the children play in the child minding franchise in the library, to read popular magazines while drinking coffee from the coffee franchise in the library, to work off the flab at the gym franchise in the library – ANYTHING but a place to read serious books. And if you or I do have a need to read serious books, we will pay for that privilage at the same rate we do for the privilage of reading journal articles – as much as $30 per article.

  2. Matthew, I fear you are right. Indeed my local library has already been turned into a creche, and I already have to pay huge sums to borrow textbooks.

  3. As for my own experience, Spanish libraries are much gloomier places. You can hardly find a photocopier that works, let alone a cafe machine. They are full of rigid, stupid rules all presumedly in the interest of book conservation, which hardly help researchers at all or knowledge spreading. I am a university student and investigator, 38 years-old, and still look back as futuristic at a short sejourn I could make to the Robbarts Library at the University of Toronto fifteen years ago. I mean, what is the point in making books unaccesible? In the last few years, Internet has made available a lot of information to people like me, who are not full-time academics and can only travel around at huge personal and monetary cost, taking days off at our own expense and sacrificing holidays and family commitments in behalf of our investigations, which yield only inner reward and satisfaction. We live, I think, the beginning of a golden age in this regard and, yes, it´s a revolution. Like all revolutions it raises fears and opportunities. Some will materialize, some not. But I am eager to take my chances.

    By the way, congratulations, Roger, for this splendid blog.

  4. David, thank you for your info on Spanish libraries. I hadn’t known that they were so backward. But all these “rules” that choke the user of the library — I know the sort of thing very well — are devised by the staff. Often they are devised by some minor official worrying “what if someone complains that …. — we’ll make a rule that all users must take their shoes off and have them inspected, then.” There is a motor running of more and more rules, but no mechanism for users to challenge them or remove them, as a rule. And they don’t inconvenient the staff, so there is no incentive for them to sort them out. Authority is devolved to too low a level.

    At Cambridge University Library the “rules” have got more and more obstructive over the 10 years I have been there. I can understand that a university library has to deal with some students who are children in most respects; but it is still very tedious.

    I worked out what the cost of getting a copy of those 10 volumes would have been — $2,500!! Thank you, Google.

    Thanks also for your kind words!

  5. OK, I may have hit long the mark. In Spain we have a saying: “If he speaks ill of Spain… he is a Spaniard”. There are some libraries that are better equipped than all that, like the National Library, or the Historical Library “Marqués de Valdecilla” which is in charge of the oldest books of the Complutense University. Yet, some rules are obvious. I haven´t seen that in my academic lifetime, which spans only for the last twenty years, but some time ago you could enter the National Library, Section Newspapers, ask for today´s journal, make the crosswords and go home without spending a cent. Now, after the bombings craze, they are probably spendig more money in security guards than in conservators and librarians (I´ve have nothing against tight security, I myself make my living as a night watchman in an oil company headquarters). Talking about money, five years ago I translated a crusade chronicle as part of my habilitation for my PH.D., which is contained in the Patrologia Latina, Volume 213. I contacted Chadwyck-Healey Inc. to buy a copy of their digitized version. They laughed at me at the other end of the line. They didn´t sell to individuals, only to institutions, and their fee was 20.000 euros for a CD-ROM. I am not ashamed to say that I got a pirated copy of the four volumes I needed. What it´s a shame, in my view, is to profit so grossly of the work the Congregation of Saint-Maur did 150 years ago.

    As you I´m very thankful to Google for their pains and wouldn´t be totally against paying a reasonable fee for using their service. We´ll see.

  6. Most of us have to earn our living however we may. I do mine as a computer programmer.

    That Chadwick-Healey CD really annoyed me. There was no legal way to acquire access. Such contempt for ordinary people deserves to get pirated.

  7. I don´t know if what I did was really pirateing. After some begging they gave me a password to access their on-line content for a week, and I copy-pasted in plain text four volumes of the Patrologia, losing obviously all the footnotes, cross references, column division and external links. What I really wanted was not having to type all my chronicle, though the version in the Patrologia is rather faulty and I had to check and double check (in fact I tripled-checked) the Guébin-Lyon version of the Hystoria Albigensis, which is the scholar standard of this work. So I did a scribal labour as meticulous as anything Chadwyck-Healey can claim on their own version. I don´t feel like Long John Silver for that.

  8. I have no idea on the legal position, but I hardly think they can claim copyright on Migne’s text. All you did was use their version to save some typing, before you reworked it.

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