Libraries' Digital Direction

PHILADELPHIA -- Most college library directors would order print books removed from the library if there was a robust and trustworthy way to provide access to electronic versions, according to a new study released today by the nonprofit Ithaka S+R.

April 4, 2011

PHILADELPHIA -- Most college library directors would order print books removed from the library if there was a robust and trustworthy way to provide access to electronic versions, according to a new study released today by the nonprofit Ithaka S+R.

The same study also reveals undercurrents of doubt from the library directors about how to proceed strategically as their institutions navigate the bridge from print to electronic collections. Most worry that they don't know enough about the costs and benefits of the various models of e-book access to develop an informed strategy for making the switch. And an ideal “system” for licensing e-book content that librarians consider both robust and trustworthy does not yet exist.

Still, the survey respondents professed near-absolute confidence that electronic content such as online journals and e-books, whose ascendancy has been foretold for years, will dominate library collections in the not-so-distant future.

This is particularly true of scholarly journal content. Of the 239 library directors at four-year institutions who responded to the survey, 70 percent said that they would be “completely comfortable” switching to an electronic-only subscription for all of their print journals today. Fifty-four percent said they expect that waning demand for print journals will allow them to do exactly that within five years. More than 90 percent are planning to move the back issues of their print journals into remote storage.

“What we think we’ve documented here ... is that the shift from print to electronic for journals is a settled issue,” Roger Schonfeld, manager of research at Ithaka S+R, said in an invite-only preview of the research on Friday here at the annual meeting of the Association of College and Research Libraries.

The librarians seemed less enthusiastic about the idea of getting rid of or remotely storing books in favor of e-books. Only 7 percent of the respondents said that within five years, hard copies of books would be gone from their library buildings. However, the study also suggests that unlike those of professors, whose reluctance to part with printed books might be more a matter of consumer preference, the library directors’ objections are perhaps more logistical than aesthetic.

Studies have demonstrated the economic benefits of electronic book collections versus physical ones, and all the hand-wringing over “return-on-investment” here in Philadelphia underscores the fact that many librarians are feeling pressure to think like economists. Yet some have warned that the costs of switching to electronic access could be higher than librarians might think. And about half of the respondents to the Ithaka survey say that, of the different models of access (limited-time subscription, pay-per-view, outright purchase), they do not yet know which would be best for their libraries.

Still, when Ithaka asked the library directors to imagine the availability of “a robust system for preservation of and access to historical monograph collections” (such as the one that Google, despite a recent setback, may still try to field), as well as assurances that print copies would still be available when needed, 74 percent of the directors said that “the withdrawal of print books would be an important strategy for their libraries in the future,” while a full third said they would be “likely” to remove printed books from the main library under those circumstances. If the e-books were available through “a trusted sharing network,” the number of librarians who said they would probably jettison print volumes leaped to 84 percent.

Given that “the concept statement in the survey might become a reality in just a few years,” the library directors’ responses “show that digitized or digital versions of books and monographs could play a valuable role for libraries in the future, provided that access, discoverability, and digital as well as print preservation are properly managed,” the Ithaka researchers write.

The survey data on how the library directors expect to allocate their purchasing budgets in the near future suggest a shift to investing new money in e-journals and e-books. Asked to imagine a sudden 10 percent increase in the library budget and make a prioritized list of where they would spend it, the highest percentage (55 percent) said they would invest in “online or digital journals.” Placing near the top of the rankings were “other electronic resources” and “electronic versions of scholarly monographs,” which landed fourth and fifth, respectively, out of a list of 20 possible categories.

As far as how they intend to spend their actual budgets, the library directors anticipated that within five years, 88 percent of the money spent on journals would go to digital versions, Ithaka analyst Matthew Long told the gathering of ACRL attendees on Friday. Meanwhile, the respondents predicted that the proportion of money spent on print books would fall to 54 percent, heralding a “dual format period, where libraries are acquiring about half of their books in print, and about half of them in digital form,” said Long.

But the librarians’ enthusiasm for digital collections could collide with reluctance from faculty. The Ithaka researchers, who conducted a similar study of faculty attitudes two years ago, noted on Friday that while 70 percent of library directors said they would gladly switch to all digital journals today, only half that many faculty agreed. Even science faculty, known to be relatively comfortable reading journals online, agreed at a rate of less than 50 percent. (A mere quarter of humanities faculty said they would brook such a change.) The attitudes of library directors and faculty on the question of print books are more aligned, with only 7 percent of directors and 4 percent of faculty endorsing a full-fledged purge based on current conditions.

There are cautionary tales about library directors who have underestimated how passionate faculty might be about moving various print collections. In 2009, Suzanne E. Thorin, dean of libraries at Syracuse University, had to reverse course on a plan to move infrequently used texts to a storage facility hundred of miles away after facing protests that included a petition signed by 100 humanities professors.

In fact, a number of institutions have managed to move some portion of their books to off-site storage, the new survey reveals: 15 percent of respondents said they have shipped at least 5 percent of their books out of the main library -- most, apparently, without inciting a riot.

During a question-and-answer session at the end of Friday’s unveiling, June Koelker, dean of libraries at Texas Christian University, asked her fellow librarians whether they had faced resistance when junking their back issues of journals now duplicated in electronic archives such as JSTOR and Portico. Nobody testified. “So they don’t know you did it?” Koelker said, looking around. “I should be brave!” she said, returning to her seat. “Take the step!” exclaimed someone in the audience, drawing laughs. “Come toward the light!"

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