[lit-ideas] books (for those who care)...

  • From: "Steven G. Cameron" <stevecam@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Fri, 10 Dec 2004 15:28:10 -0500



/Steve Cameron, NJ

The Chronicle of Higher Ed, 10 December, 2004


College Libraries: the Long Goodbye

I was staring at the budget figures, trying to decide how much we could 
afford to spend on library books, when a conversation from a couple of 
weeks before came to mind.

I had been on the campus running trail when a familiar face appeared 
alongside me. It was Bob G., a professor of management. He began 
chatting about the university's overall financial situation and asked 
how the library was adjusting to recent cuts. Then he asked me whether I 
thought that my job would exist 10 years from now.

I gave him a blank look, trying to conceal my irritation.

"Are you still buying books?" he asked.

"Yes, but we're about to run out of space," I conceded.

"I thought you told me a couple of years ago that books were inefficient 
-- that books were expensive to buy and store, and that they didn't get 
enough use to justify their cost," said Bob.

I have had similar conversations hundreds of times over the years. The 
usual sequence of comments is something like: The university has 
financial problems, books are expensive, digital information is more 
efficient, and therefore we don't need libraries or librarians. I asked 
Bob if that was what he meant.

He nodded and came to a halt near a tree where we could talk. "Couldn't 
you move your technology to Mumbai and hire some English-speaking Indian 
librarians to catalog the books and answer reference questions over the 

I mumbled that that was possible. Then I added a bit defensively, "We 
could also hire Indian faculty members to teach our students via 
distance education, and save even more money."

The arguments for cutting library purchases of books and for outsourcing 
operations are well meaning. And the uncomfortable facts are that 
libraries are collections, publishers are distributors, and both 
collecting and distributing could be done online if enough money, 
organization, and expertise were put into the effort. But the arguments 
against those moves include a wealth of legal, financial, practical, 
political, pedagogical, and philosophical reasons.

I was all too familiar with the pitfalls of trying to maintain an 
outsourced, electronic library because, to some extent, that is what 
academic librarians have been doing for years. It was originally 
somewhat entertaining to talk to contract specialists and lawyers about 
Web-based journals and databases, but the glamour soon wore off as 
renewal time came around and lawyers on both sides added incompatible 
terms. Once publishers realized that it made no economic sense for them 
to prepare individual contracts for thousands of libraries, they turned 
to more standardized product lines and contract options. Unfortunately 
each university is unique in its information needs, budget, and goals.

Having a fully outsourced, electronic library would mean giving up 
control of the information available on your campus, and allowing 
lawyers, accountants, and vendors' content specialists to make decisions 
about access to published research -- much like HMO clerks deciding what 
medical care your doctor can provide. Can innovation and excellence 
flourish in that kind of environment? That is one of the questions that 
keep librarians awake at night, but it is a large question -- a bit too 
taxing for a tired librarian at the end of a three-mile run. In any case 
Bob had asked about buying books.

As I limped back to the gym on an age-challenged ankle, I saw a beat-up 
paperback copy of Plato's Republic in a trash can. Every college student 
knows how to find Plato on the Web, and the book was no longer worth 
carting around. Maybe Bob was right, and the university shouldn't be 
spending quite so much money on library books.

For a librarian who has even a modest sense of either posterity or 
professional responsibility, entertaining any thoughts about a decline 
in the importance of books is painful. After all, books are how we speak 
to one another across generations, and one of the ways we can subvert 
the limitations of culture, class, gender, and personality.

But not all books are priceless additions to our heritage. Bad books 
cascade off the world's presses in a torrent of never-ending 
intellectual sewage. Amid the constant babble, the best books have 
trouble attracting attention.

In the 1970s American publishers produced fewer than 40,000 new books a 
year; today the figure is more than 120,000. It is harder to get a 
handle on similar increases in the number of academic fields of study, 
but at my institution degree programs have grown from 250 two decades 
ago to more than 350 today. There are now more faculty members, working 
in more fields and publishing more books, than ever before -- and no 
academic library has enough money to buy all those books, which means 
that scholarly publishers can no longer count on libraries for adequate 

Just as the number of scholarly books has increased, so has the number 
of scholarly journals. Disciplines old and new are spawning journals 
with abandon, to provide publishing outlets for the ever-increasing 
numbers of professors working in ever-more-specialized fields.

The arrival of the digital age has also seen the birth of entirely new 
formats of scholarly communication, like online databases, e-journals, 
and e-books. The book on Milton that cost a library $4.95 in 1974 has 
been replaced by literary multimedia databases that cost libraries 
$20,000 a year. Unfortunately, library budgets have not kept pace with 
those changes.

Over the last dozen years my university has added some 150 faculty 
positions, while we have been unable to increase the number of books we 
purchase, and we have had to reduce by several thousand the number of 
journals we subscribe to. Of course, increases in the cost of journals 
are partially to blame. But the information pie keeps getting bigger, 
and the slice of that pie that any library can afford to buy keeps 
getting smaller.

Without a pandemic of carpal-tunnel syndrome, it is unlikely that we 
will ever see an end to the writing of books on academic topics. 
However, it is entirely possible that increasing specialization and the 
inexorably insensitive hand of economics will mean that the majority of 
the next million books on academic themes will be digital rather than 

So turn off your computer and take a stroll down to the campus library. 
Walk through the stacks and begin saying your goodbyes to the shelves of 
printed books. It may not be this year, this decade, or even before you 
retire -- but drastic changes in the ways libraries and scholarly 
publishers operate are coming, and their effects will extend throughout 
the academy.

One day we may see book machines in every library or bookstore that can 
print and bind any book you want, machines that will draw on a database 
of millions of digital titles. Or every institution of higher education 
might create an official online repository of its faculty members' 
publications -- including books, articles, and multimedia works -- 
thereby replacing traditional journal publishers and university presses. 
Or some future version of Amazon.com may allow you to purchase or rent 
any book in the world, in whatever format you want, for as long as you want.

But all that is speculation. Here are the certainties: People will 
continue to write books, people will continue to read books, and the 
academic-publishing process needs to be reformed so that we can continue 
to meet our goal of scholarly communication in an economically 
sustainable way.

Dennis Dillon is associate director for research services at the 
libraries of the University of Texas at Austin.

To change your Lit-Ideas settings (subscribe/unsub, vacation on/off,
digest on/off), visit www.andreas.com/faq-lit-ideas.html

Other related posts:

  • » [lit-ideas] books (for those who care)...