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The Disappearing College Catalog
July 18, 2010 - 9:49pm

I threw a stack of college catalogs in the recycling bin last week. It was a symbolic as well as a practical move, a step toward the triumph of the electronic over the printed. Will today’s students really come to the Registrar’s Office to browse for cross-campus classes? Or will they find a course schedule online with a few key search terms? I’m betting on the latter.

The dilemma of whether to publish and distribute a printed catalog, which after a brief time of usefulness, lingers in drawers of faculty members and administrators, is one many colleges have had. The cost of printing thousands of catalog copies is an easy line item to redline in a budget and the environmental benefit cannot be ignored.

The decision to stop publishing a hard-copy catalog is surprisingly emotional in the educational community. The dilemma is a quintessential example of the print vs. digital debate that libraries face. When I asked my sister, a college sophomore, if her school had given her a catalog, her response was: "yeah, and it was thick and I never looked at it."

This is not what Registrars want to hear. We hope students understand that when they enroll, the catalog becomes their field guide to the institution, providing a comprehensive (if lengthy) compendium of the academic regulations and course descriptions, and also a general introduction to student life. At the same time, I see how the catalog can be viewed as an outdated source of information that is readily available on the college web site.

Questioning the value of the printed catalog brings up a range of emotions. As a student, I remember the excitement each semester when the upcoming course book showed up in my mailbox. I would hurry home and read through the exotic new courses, and circle more than I could ever enroll in. Faculty members also pay close attention to the catalog, and many have described the pleasure they get from reading about their colleagues’ courses and programs. It is a unifying artifact - this is our college, it says, in a neatly bound volume.

But the college experience can't be simply summed up between two covers. The printed catalog lacks the intertextuality of hyperlinks, of seeing the relationship of courses to each other, of being able to click on an instructor’s name and quickly find their bio and the other courses they are teaching. Students today are fluent in browsing and searching electronic documents. I often find myself pulling up a PDF version on a web browser and using the “find” function when it may be just as fast to grab a catalog on my desk and flip to the course description I am looking for. MIT’s online catalog provides both an intuitive and visually pleasing web version with clear instructions on how to get a printed copy.

There will always be those who prefer, and enjoy, reading the catalog in print, savoring the tactile pleasure of the book in printed form. One solution may be to print on demand, so those who do want a catalog can get one and enjoy the feel in their hands of a newly published “book” hot off the press.

What is your institution considering? What will you miss about a printed catalog, and what unexpected benefits do you find in an electronic version?


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