When will the librarians start to throw offline literature away?

When I started my projects, in 1997, there was little online.  To get access to books, I had to visit a major research library.  I cadged a reader’s ticket, sans borrowing privileges, and made day trips.  Once there, I browsed the stacks and photocopied and photocopied whatever I could, for an exaggerated price.  Some items – many items – were confined to the rare books room, and so could only be photocopied by the staff.  This cost twice as much, and invariably involved a delay of a week.  Always the copies were very bad quality.

In less than twenty years, everything has changed.  Books are available in vast amounts online.  Access is still a thorny issue, but this will change.  We are in a period of transition.

Things once unthinkable are now routine.  I remember, in the late 90s, going to the British Library in London and asking innocently if I might photograph a manuscript.  The keeper whom I asked became very rude, almost as if I had asked for the casual use of her daughter for the night.  Today you can stroll in with your mobile phone and builtin camera.

I’ve spent much of today scanning a book containing a modern English translation of a patristic biblical commentary.  It’s hard, time-consuming work.  But I don’t actually want a paper copy.  A PDF will be far more useful to me, especially once I make it searchable.  So I am converting my three volume paper copy into PDFs.  Naturally I am somewhat irked at spending my time thus, when I know that the paper copies were printed from an electronic PDF!!  But no matter … this too is a matter of transition.  Already translations are being offered in PDF, at ridiculous prices, and these too will fall.

I don’t scan very much these days.  My days are shorter than they once were, and I am more tired.  I can’t put the output from this task online either.  But I just want the floor space.  Still, it brought back a memory or two, turning the volume on the scanner and working over the images in FineReader.  What I would have given in 1997 for the hardware and software I have today!!

But once everything is online, or at least in electronic form, what becomes of the offline material?

But while scanning, my mind drifted to a Sci-Fi novel, in which this future is envisaged.  The work is Archform Beauty, by L.E.Modesitt.  The work is written from the perspective of the heroine, a professional singer and academic in a world with a diminishing need for art music.

I was buried in the southwest corner of the lowest level of the university library. My eyes burned as I flicked past image after image in the reader, hurrying through decades of information quickly, trying to locate old photos and stories not in the link archives–or even fragments of stories …

On Monday, I’d done what I could. I awakened early and gotten in a good two hours of practice, plus some exercise, and managed to get to the university a good twenty minutes before my lesson with Abdullah. The lesson had been good.

I’d gone to the library to browse through the closed stacks and try to discover some more older sheet music that had never been scanned into the system–in hopes of finding something unique. I didn’t. Back in November, I had found a “lost” song cycle of a twentieth-century composer named Britten, called “On This Island”–very haunting and beautiful. I wasn’t that lucky on Monday.

I decided not to go back home, but to check my office. It was old-fashioned, but I’d never linked the office and my conapt. I still felt that unless the university wanted to make me full contract, they didn’t deserve instant, around-the-clock access. I really felt that way at that moment.

The first message was from Mahmed. He was smiling, but it wasn’t a condescending expression. “Luara, I just wanted to confirm that we’re on for three-thirty on Tuesday. If that’s a problem, let me know. It will be a long session. Cannon has some new ads he wants to record. We may have to schedule another session on Wednesday. I hope you can do that.” …

The second message was from a tall blonde woman.

“This is SuEllen Crayno of the Crayno Agency. Mahmed Solyman of Crescent Productions provided your codes. We’d be very much interested in talking to you. If you’re interested, please let me know.”

Was I interested? How could I not be interested, with Dean Donald suggesting that he was just dying to throw me out once he could figure out a way? …

After that, I checked the system for memos and documents. The only thing of interest was a note from the library to inform me that the section I’d been searching manually was scheduled for purging in June. Purging? Just because no one wanted to take the time to scan the information or read through it? There was no way I could search it all by June. How many other songs or song cycles were there, like the Britten cycle, that would be lost forever? There might not be any, but I had no way to know.

Still, I had to try. So I went back to the stacks and spent three hours. I found nothing. Then, I got a sandwich from the student center and ate it before I walked to the shuttle station to head home.

Will it be thus?  Administrators “purging” offline archives, once everything of importance is online?  I think that it will.

Libraries cost money.  Do we need large buildings, heavily staffed, full of paper, if “everything of importance” is online, in databases, collections, and so forth?  For a university accountant, the answer is self-evidently not.  A generation may be needed, but those volumes will be sold, the staff dismissed, and the building repurposed.

Such changes in information technology have happened before.  When the codex replaced the roll, whatever was not copied into the snazzy new book format was lost.  And only materials of interest at that time were likely to make the transition.  We probably lost half of Tacitus at that time, for instance.  Likewise when printing replaced hand-copying, we lost vast numbers of manuscripts, many irreplaceable.  Now a new gateway is at hand through which the knowledge of the human race must pass.

Perhaps we’d all better get scanning.


7 thoughts on “When will the librarians start to throw offline literature away?

  1. Since society is moving towards a (neo)liberal interpretation of our general life condition, this indeed could be an impending danger. I remember having posted before something about lunar pictures from the 1960s being rescued:


    I believe that is rather worrisome… Also, it is a *fact* that some libraries are scanning their books and have them put online so they can “clear space”. Also, in my favourite library, the Loeb-section carries a note saying that all volumes published before 1960s-something can be found online. As such, I believe they won’t make an effort to replace they heavily worn-down volume by new(er) copies. In some cases, it wouldn’t hurt…

    Archive.org claims to store at least one copy of each book. Now let us hope their building won’t catch fire (again): http://blog.archive.org/2011/06/06/why-preserve-books-the-new-physical-archive-of-the-internet-archive/

  2. Interesting – thank you. Yes, I think it’s starting to happen already. Those Loebs are certainly a sign.

  3. Colby College sent half its print collection to storage; the neo-liberal reason was to provide office space for a “Center for Teaching and Learning,” a “Writing Center,” and a much-desired Starbuck’s that never materialized. The books and the knowledge embodied in their collection and arrangement are not online, and the online copies aren’t fully available, mostly: see “Google Books.” The transition from codex to books is this time a transition from books to profit, without any accounting of the current or future costs to knowledge. Even the defenses are indictments: see Christine L. Ferguson (2015) In Favor of Weeding, Serials Review, 41:4, 221-223, and http://lj.libraryjournal.com/blogs/annoyedlibrarian/2014/05/15/books-in-the-stacks/

  4. I was at some point in my university’s graduate student governing institutions and I remember we had a discussion about the library. The librarians were telling us that considering how expensive journal subscriptions are and that when you cut off the subscription you would also lose the back issues, they preferred to keep subscriptions to paper journals since if those were discontinued they at least had the back copies in storage. They simply would not have the future copies

  5. William: from what I’ve heard, Colby College’s storage expansion is a half mile away, faculty and students can easily visit and browse, and stored books are delivered to faculty offices daily.
    Expanding storage lets a library *not* remove unused books, even those that no one has touched in years.

    From working at large state unis, I’ve seen that libraries everywhere want to keep acquiring new printed books, even as their shelves are getting full. And no scholar likes to see unused books being removed from the collection, *just in case* they might be of later use.

    The solution has been offsite storage with frequent delivery. It’s not ideal, but libraries are doing what they can with declining budgets to keep access to a full range of scholarly materials. Librarians are also working in regional consortia to maintain archival physical copies, no matter if some libraries transition to ebooks. More accessible large collections would depend on a bigger budget. We’d accept it if you gave it to us!

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