Not too long ago at a gathering of librarians (I can’t recall which, exactly) I overheard a snatch of something that sank in like a splinter. I didn’t hear it clearly so I can’t quite get it out, but it’s bothering me. It was an exasperated statement to the effect that ebooks are a huge headache and students often prefer print, but libraries are no longer supposed to give up valuable space to books, so what should we do?
I have two conflicting response to this. First, if students don’t want ebooks, shouldn’t we listen to them? Aren’t we supposed to be student centered? (This is not a phrase I love, even though my undergraduate library is totally for students. I always feel as if it’s an accusation of negligence that I don’t quite grasp, or an agenda that is hidden from me.) Of course, I’ve heard librarians say that their students at their institution love ebooks and I don’t doubt them. But if students at a particular library have made their preferences clear, it seems it would be only sensible to take them seriously. Books are for use, after all, and a giant collection of ebooks that students prefer not to use may not be a terrific use of funds. But it’s hard to tell. Some ebook packages tell you not just how often an ebook was consulted, you can find out exactly how many pages were turned (so to speak). Since we have no comparable numbers for printed books other than that somebody removed it from the shelf and didn’t put it back, it’s hard to compare.
There are many reasons people don’t like the ebooks that come in academic packages. Sometimes they are difficult to use. DRM makes downloading tricky, and the platforms can be awkward. Sometimes students prefer reading from a page rather than a screen, partly because they spend so much time staring at screens and want a break, partly because they find it easier to concentrate. Sometimes ebooks have bits missing – images that can’t be included because the rights were not secured. Most of the time, they can’t be shared through interlibrary loan, and even if they legally can, there is likely no mechanism for doing so.
Often they come in big packages that cost a lot. The good news is that librarians don’t have to spend any time on book selection, they take up no space, and you only have to write one big check annually instead of writing lots of fiddly little checks. The bad news is that you’re probably paying for books your local library users aren’t interested in and you may not have any money left over for books that are interesting but aren’t in the package.
Of course, there’s a tactical way for a book lover to look at this: if libraries sink money into bookish Big Deals, they may have more books than they do when all the money goes to Big Deals full of journals and no money is left over for books. Then again, do we really want more Big Deals? Are we ready to let books join journals as the exclusive property of publishers, with nothing left for libraries to own or share or preserve? That’s pretty much what we did with journals. Our libraries are becoming contingent libraries, only existing so long as we continue to pay the rent.
And there are some scary consequences. If a publisher is sued in Britain where libel laws favor plaintiffs, could all copies of a book be altered at the flick of a switch? Are we okay with that?
My other thought is that we’ve mostly done an absolutely terrible job of taking care of our printed book collections. Doing it right means getting rid of books that are no longer useful. That is a tricky judgment call, of course, but we used to make them all the time when adding books. We just didn’t think we had time to go through the same evaluative process in order to remove them.
I imagine some readers are breaking out in hives just about now. Apart from the labor involved, deliberately removing books from library collections is taboo. Books are sacred. People get terribly upset if they catch you removing books and in some cases we can’t find new homes for them. We’re supposed to be no-kill shelters for orphaned books. It's much easier to stop buying new books than to remove old ones, so our print collections get shabbier and less useful and after a while those neglected books really do seem to be a waste of space.
In my ideal world, we’d provide books in the formats our patrons prefer and would not sign licenses for ebooks that are not censorship-proof or which disable the kind of sharing we’ve done in the past. We’d select books carefully and knowledgeably and share them among libraries to make up for our inevitable gaps. We’d care enough about them to have an organized cooperative preservation scheme that would allow us to have a backup in cases where we remove a book that somebody might someday need. We'd even figure out better ways to browse absent books. And we’d be fearless about removing from our shelves books that aren’t likely to be used or, or at least are ones we don’t want our undergraduates to use - that collection of sermons published in 1934 used to support a point in a biblical interpretation, that tattered paperback in the Reference Shelf series on urban crime from 1972 used by a student writing about policing in 2014, that second edition of a book that has an eleventh edition sitting right next to it.
While it has become uncool to have growing print collections, we are still obsessed by having access to as many things as we possibly can. (I recently did a search of a university library’s collection and found they had over 70,000 books and articles on neoliberalism. That seems like a symptom of neoliberalism to me.) But we also need to do the work of improving our libraries by selecting books that should go, even if it means breaking taboos.
We don’t have unlimited space. If there’s not enough room for students, the library has a problem. But there's something seriously wrong with the idea that library space is too valuable to waste on new books. if you don’t have room for new books, I have a modest proposal: put the same amount of labor and professional judgment into removing some of the old ones. Some taboos are worth breaking - judiciously.