Libraries

Wards of the Court

Smart Title: 
A sharp split over digitized versions of "orphan works," as well as anger over Google's books project, led authors' group to sue major university libraries.

What Students Don't Know

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Smart Title: 

A two-year anthropological study of student research habits shows that students are in dire need of help from librarians, but are loath to ask for it.

British Libraries Push Back

Smart Title: 
Research institutions demand price cuts before they will renew package deals.

The Activist Who Downloaded Too Much

Smart Title: 
Indictment charges theft of millions of journal articles through MIT's JSTOR account.

Using Library Experts Wisely

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Forget the usual orientation programs, writes Rob Weir. You gain more by making a librarian an integral part of your course.

Pass It On

One sign of the great flexibility of American English -- if also of its high tolerance for ugliness -- is the casual way users will turn a noun into a verb. It happens all the time. And lately, it tends to be a matter of branding. You "xerox" an article and "tivo" a movie. Just for the record, neither Xerox nor TiVo is  very happy about such unauthorized usage of its name. Such idioms are, in effect, a dilution of the  trademark.

Which creates an odd little double bind for anyone with the culture-jamming instinct to Stick It To The Man. Should you absolutely refuse to give free advertising to either Xerox or TiVo by using their names as verbs, you have actually thereby fallen into line with corporate policy. Then again, if you defy their efforts to police ordinary language, that means repeating a company name as if it were something natural and inevitable. See, that's how they get ya.

On a less antiglobalizational note, I've been trying to come up with an alternative to using "meme" as a verb. For one thing, it is too close to "mime," with all the queasiness that word evokes.

As discussed here on Tuesday, meme started out as a noun implying a theory. It called to mind a more or less biological model of how cultural phenomena (ideas, fads, ideologies, etc.) spread and reproduce themselves over time. Recently the term has settled into common usage -- in a different, if related, sense. It now applies to certain kinds of questionnaires or discussion topics that circulate within (and sometimes between) blogospheric communities.

There does not seem to be an accepted word to name the creation and initial dissemination of a meme. So it could be that "meme" must also serve, for better or worse, as a transitive verb.

In any case, my options are limited.... Verbal elegance be damned: Let's meme.

The ground rules won't be complicated. The list of questions is short, but ought to yield some interesting responses. With luck, the brevity will speed up circulation.

In keeping with meme protocol, I'll "tap"a few bloggers to respond. Presumably they will do likewise. However, the invitation is not restricted to that handful of people: This meme is open to anyone who wants to participate.

So here are the questions:

(1) Imagine it's 2015. You are visiting the library at a major research university. You go over to a computer terminal (or whatever it is they use in 2015) that gives you immediate access to any book or journal article on any topic you want. What do you look up? In other words, what do you hope somebody will have written in the meantime?

(2) What is the strangest thing you've ever heard or seen at a conference? No names, please. Refer to "Professor X" or "Ms. Y" if you must. Double credit if you were directly affected. Triple if you then said or did something equally weird.

(3) Name a writer, scholar, or otherwise worthy person you admire so much that meeting him or her would probably reduce you to awestruck silence.

(4) What are two or three blogs or other Web sites you often read that don't seem to be on many people's radar?
Feel free to discard anything you don't care to answer.

To get things started, I'm going to tap a few individuals -- people I've had only fairly brief contact with in the past. As indicated, however, anyone else who wants to respond is welcome to do so. The initial list:

Okay, that should do for now.

An afterthought on the first question -- the one about getting a chance to look things up in a library of the future: Keep in mind the cautionary example of Enoch Soames, the minor late-Victorian poet whose story Max Beerbohm tells. He sold his soul to the devil for a chance to spend an afternoon in the British Library, 100 years in the future, reading what historians and critics would eventually say about his work.

Soames ends up in hell a little early: The card catalog shows that posterity has ignored him even more thoroughly than his contemporaries did.

Proof, anyway, that ego surfing is really bad for you, even in the future. A word to the wise.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

Noise in the Stacks

In June, Intellectual Affairs offered a modest proposal for the general improvement of academic culture. The idea was simple. It was that academic librarians ought to have a group blog -- and that, furthermore, it would be a good thing if people other than librarians were to read it. After all, many of the problems they face, and the decisions they come to, affect anyone who does research in a library. Which is to say, most of us.

By amplifying the voices of an important but largely overlooked sector of the scholarly workforce, such a blog might do its part to benefit the common good of everyone. That, in brief, was the point made by the column called "Silence in the Stacks." And for making it, I got no little grief.

More on that in a moment. But for now, it is a pleasure to note that the call was heard. The Association of College and Research Libraries -- which has 12,000 members working in the various sectors of secondary education -- has now launched a group site called ACRLog. Actually it has been running since mid-September, but only in warm-up mode. Its existence was officially announced yesterday, following what sounds like a rather thorough and protracted round of bureaucratic vetting.

It all started in June, when Steven Bell, the director of the Gutman Library at Philadelphia University, and Mary Jane Petrowski, the assistant executive director or ACRL, worked up a proposal for a group blog on academic-librarianship issues. The idea was discussed and approved during a meeting of the ACRL board during the annual conference of the American Library Association, held this year in Chicago.

"For the next two months or so," as Steve Bell told me by e-mail, "we concentrated on (1) getting a domain name and host for the blog (2) getting a software package to run the blog  (3) assembling a team of bloggers, and (4) getting the blog up and running." They then spent a few weeks fine tuning aspects of the site.

It is, in short, an authorized and official project of a professional organization. And in mentioning this, there is, once again -- ping! -- the bitter sting of spitballs at the back of my neck.

You see, in June, I mentioned that it had been difficult to find blogs that discussed the work of academic librarians in a way that treated this as a matter of general concern. It was not for want of trying. Of course, there were plenty of blogs out there by maintained by librarians, academic and otherwise. They were a good way to learn about people's hobbies, cats, sex lives, favorite television shows, political opinions, insights into various personnel decisions, and amusing or irritating encounters with patrons.

But sites where they thought out loud about the relationship between their professional expertise and the rest of the university, for example? Sure, that happened, sometimes, in passing. But not as a primary emphasis.

Saying this was, let's say, not popular. According to some of what later transpired, I had proven myself guilty of malice, myopia, abject stupidity, and willful intention to insult. To the naked eye, the column had actually been a sort of paean to librarians as overlooked wizards of the information age -- combined with a plea that others in academic life give them their due.

But perhaps that was part of my nefarious plan? For I am a snake. And as the Bible tells us, the snake is the most subtle of the beasts.

What had really happened only became clear much later: I had wandered, blithely enough, into a minefield. Doubtless you have heard about the heated exchanges between pro- and anti-blogging factions of academe. And there have been similar contretemps within the profession of journalism: Some see blogging as a legitimate dimension of mass media, and some regard it as the death of all standards and accountability. Well, the same polarization has occurred among librarians.

The anger touched off by "Silence in the Stacks" in June was actually a continuation of the furor over a notorious (well, in some circles, anyway) statement by Michael Gorman, the president of the American Library Association, earlier this year. In the pages of [ital]Library Journal[ital], he lashed out at "the Blog People" in his own profession -- attributing to them sundry lapses of taste, judgment, and intelligence.

It was as if he were conducting an experiment to see if they could carry a grudge. Guess what? They can.

It would be good to think that the new group blog started by the Association of College and Research Libraries will rise above the old hostilities. So far, four academic librarians are involved in running it. I asked Steven Bell if there were plans to involve more people.

"I hope we can add two bloggers in the next few months," he wrote in reply. "....I should add that we are open to guest posts from colleagues, and perhaps if we find someone who shows some talent for this sort of thing he or she will be invited to join the blogging team."

One of the current participants is, by his own account, a latecomer to the format. Scott Walter is assistant dean of libraries for information and instructional services at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. "I was not an early adopter of the blog as a means of disseminating information or personal views," he told me, instead preferring "more familiar formats such as public presentation and publication in traditional journals. Nor have I been particularly active on the older electronic medium of the discussion list in recent years."

So why go digital now? "What sold me on the idea," as he put it, "was the notion of a public forum for discussion of academic library issues that inhabits the middle ground between the  quickly composed reply to a discussion list and the formal (and often long-delayed) publication of one's ideas in a peer-reviewed journal.... It struck me that, despite the variety of library blogs already available, we still had a need for this in the world of academic librarianship."

Another member of the ACRLog group is Barbara Fister, coordinator of the instruction program at the Folke Bernadotte Memorial Library at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.

"Blogging is an emerging narrative genre that interests me both as a librarian and as someone interested in popular literacy generally," Fister told me. "It's part news, part opinion, part humor, part passion, part contact sport -- and of course it's a way to get conversations going."

That reference to "conversation" turns out to be an allusion to a library-science article published almost 20 years ago: Joan Bechtel's "Conversation, a New Paradigm for Librarianship?" It's an oft-cited text. Here's a passage from it: "The primary task, then, of the academic library is to introduce students to the world of scholarly dialogue that spans both space and time and to provide students with the knowledge and skills they need to tap into conversations on an infinite variety of topics, and to participate in the critical inquiry and debate on those issues."

In other words: Academic librarians were cultivating the blogosphere even before there was one....

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

The Shift Away From Print

For most scholarly journals, the transition away from the print format and to an exclusive reliance on the electronic version seems all but inevitable, driven by user preferences for electronic journals and concerns about collecting the same information in two formats. But this shift away from print, in the absence of strategic planning by a higher proportion of libraries and publishers, may endanger the viability of certain journals and even the journal literature more broadly -- while not even reducing costs in the ways that have long been assumed. 

Although the opportunities before us are significant, a smooth transition away from print and to electronic versions of journals requires concerted action, most of it individually by libraries and publishers. 

In reaching this conclusion, we rely largely on a series of studies, of both publishers and libraries, in which we examined some of the incentives for a transition and some of the opportunities and challenges that present themselves. Complete findings of our library study, on which we partnered with Don King and Ann Okerson, were published as The Nonsubscription Side of Periodicals. We also recently completed a study of the operations of 10 journal publishers, in conjunction with Mary Waltham, an independent publishing consultant. 

Taken together, these studies suggest that an electronic-only environment would be more cost-effective than print-only for most journals, with cost savings for both libraries and publishers. But this systemwide perspective must also be balanced against a more textured examination of libraries and publishers.

On the publisher side, the transition to online journals has been facilitated by some of the largest publishers, commercial and nonprofit. These publishers have already invested in and embraced a dual-format mode of publishing; they have diversified their revenue streams with separately identifiable income from both print and now increasingly electronic formats. Although the decreasing number of print subscriptions may have a negative impact on revenues, these publishers’ pricing has evolved alongside the economies of online only delivery to mitigate the effects of print cancellations on the bottom line.

The trend has been to adopt value-based pricing that recognizes the convenience of a single license serving an entire campus (rather than multiple subscriptions), with price varying by institutional size, intensity of research activity, and/or number of online users. By “flipping” their pricing to be driven primarily by the electronic version, with print effectively an add-on, these publishers have been able to manage the inevitable decline of their print business without sacrificing net earnings. They are today largely agnostic to format and, when faced with price complaints, are now positioned to recommend that libraries consider canceling their print subscriptions in favor of electronic-only access.

Other journal publishers, especially smaller nonprofit scholarly societies in the humanities and social sciences and some university presses, are only beginning to make this transition. Even when they publish electronic versions in addition to print, these publishers have generally been slower to reconceive their business models to accommodate a dual-format environment that might rapidly become electronic-only. Their business models depend on revenues received from print, in some cases with significant contributions from advertising, and are often unable to accommodate significant print cancellations in favor of electronic access. 

Until recently, this has perhaps not been unreasonable, as demand for electronic journals has been slower to build in the humanities and some social science disciplines. But the business models of these publishers are now not sufficiently durable to sustain the journals business in the event that libraries move aggressively away from the print format. 

Many American academic libraries have sought to provide journals in both print and electronic formats for the past 5 to 10 years. The advantages of the electronic format have been clear, so these were licensed as rapidly as possible, but it has taken time for some faculty members to grow comfortable with an exclusive dependence on the electronic format. In addition, librarians were concerned about the absence of an acceptable electronic-archiving solution, given that that their cancellation of print editions would prevent higher education from depending on print as the archival format.

In the past year or two, the movement away from print by users in higher education has expanded and accelerated. No longer is widespread migration away from print restricted to early adopters like Drexel and Suffolk Universities; it has become the norm at a broad range of academic institutions, from liberal arts colleges to the largest research universities. Ongoing budget shortfalls in academe have probably been the underlying motivation. The strategic pricing models offered by some of the largest publishers, which offer a price reduction for the cancellation of print, have provided a financial incentive for libraries to contemplate completing the transition. 

Faced with resource constraints, librarians have been required to make hard choices, electing not to purchase the print version but only to license electronic access to many journals -- a step more easily made in light of growing faculty acceptance of the electronic format. Consequently, especially in the sciences, but increasingly even in the humanities, library demand for print has begun to fall. As demand for print journals continues to decline and economies of scale of print collections are lost, there is likely to be a tipping point at which continued collecting of print no longer makes sense and libraries begin to rely only upon journals that are available electronically.  
As this tipping point approaches, at unknown speed, libraries and publishers need to evaluate how they can best manage it. We offer several specific recommendations.

  • First, for those publishers that have not yet developed a strategy for an electronic-only journals environment and the transition to it, the future is now. Today’s dual-format system can only be managed effectively with a rigorous accounting of the costs and revenues of print and electronic and how these break down by format. Because some costs incurred irrespective of format are difficult to allocate, this accounting is complicated. It is also, however, critical, allowing publishers to understand the performance of each format as currently priced and, as a result, to project how the transition to an electronic-only environment would affect them. Publishers that do not immediately undertake these analyses and, if necessary, adjust their business models accordingly, may suffer dramatically as the transition accelerates and libraries reach a tipping point.
  • Second, in this transition, libraries and higher education more broadly should consider how they can support the publishers that are faced with a difficult transition. A disconcerting number of nonprofit publishers, especially scholarly societies and university presses that have the greatest presence in the humanities and social sciences fields, have a particularly complicated transition to make. The university presses and scholarly societies have been traditionally strong allies of academic libraries. They may have priced their electronic journals generously (and unrealistically). Consequently, a business model revamped to accommodate the transition may often result in a significant price increase for the electronic format. In cases where price increases are not predatory but rather adjustments for earlier unrealistic prices, libraries should act with empathy. If libraries cancel journals based on large percentage price increases (even when, measured in dollars, the increases are trivial), they may unintentionally punish lower-price publishers struggling to make the transition as efficiently as possible.
  • Third, this same set of publishers is particularly vulnerable, because their strategic planning must take place in the absence of the working capital and the economies of scale on which larger publishers have relied. As a result, some humanities journals published by small societies are not yet even available electronically. The community has a need for collaborative solutions like Project Muse or HighWire,  (initiatives that provide the infrastructure to create and distribute electronic journals) for the scholarly societies that publish the smaller journals in the humanities and social sciences. But if such solutions are not developed or cannot succeed in relatively short order on a broader scale, the alternative may be the replacement of many of these journals with blogs, repositories, or other less formal distribution models.
  • Fourth, although libraries today face difficult questions about whether and when to proceed with electronic-only access to traditionally print journals, they should try to manage this transition strategically and, in doing so, deserve support from all members of the higher education community. It has been unusual thus far for libraries to undertake a strategic, all-encompassing format review process, since it is often far more politically palatable to cancel print versions as a tactical retreat in the face of budgetary pressures. But a chaotic retreat from print will almost certainly not allow libraries to realize the maximum potential cost savings, whereas a managed strategic format review can permit far more effective planning and cost savings.

Beyond a focus on local costs and benefits, there are a number of broader issues that many libraries will want to consider in such a strategic format review. The widespread migration from print to electronic seems likely to eliminate library ownership of new accessions, with licensing taking the place of purchase. In cases where ownership led to certain expectations or practices, these will have to be rethought in a licensing-only environment.
From our perspective, the safeguarding of materials for future generations is among the most pressing practices deserving reconsideration. Questions about the necessity of developing or deploying electronic archiving solutions, and the adequacy of the existing solutions, deserve serious consideration by all libraries contemplating a migration away from print resources. In addition, the transition to electronic journals begins to raise questions about how to ensure the preservation of existing print collections. Many observers have concluded that a paper repository framework is the optimal solution, but although individual repositories have been created at the University of California, the Five Colleges, and elsewhere, the organizational work to develop a comprehensive framework for them has yet to begin.

The implications both of licensing on archiving and of the future of existing print collections are addressable as part of any library’s strategic planning for the transition to an electronic-only environment -- but all too often are being forgotten under the pressure of the budgetary axe.

These challenges appear to us to be some of the most urgent facing libraries and publishers in the nearly inevitable transition to an electronic-only journals environment. Both libraries and publishers should proceed under the assumption that the transition may take place fairly rapidly, as either side may reach a tipping point when it is no longer cost-effective to publish or purchase any print versions. It is not impossible for this transition to occur gracefully, but to do so will require the concerted efforts of individual libraries and individual publishers.

Author/s: 
Eileen Gifford Fenton and Roger C. Schonfeld
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Eileen Gifford Fenton is executive director of Portico, whose mission is to preserve scholarly literature published in electronic form and to ensure that these materials remain accessible. Portico was launched by JSTOR and is being incubated by Ithaka, with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Roger C. Schonfeld is coordinator of research for Ithaka, a nonprofit organization formed to accelerate the productive uses of information technologies for the benefit of academia. He is the author of JSTOR: A History (Princeton University Press, 2003). 

The Silencer

The decline of Western civilization proceeds apace. One shudders to imagine life in decades hence. A case in point: People now use cell phones in research libraries.

Wandering the stacks, they babble away in a blithe and full-throated manner -– conversing, not with their imaginary friends (as did the occasional library-haunting weirdo of yesteryear) but rather with someone who is evidently named “Dude,” and who might, for all one knows, be roaming elsewhere in the building: an audible menace to all serious thought and scholarly endeavor.

This situation is intolerable. It must not continue. I have given this matter long consideration, and can offer a simple and elegant solution: These people ought to be shot.

I am no extremist, please understand; no gun nut in a rural compound; no wild-eyed advocate of freelance vigilantism. Just a temperate and long-suffering citizen who has heard quite enough about the affairs of Dude for one lifetime.

Max Weber pointed out that one of the hallmarks of modernity is that the state retains a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. I have no disagreement with that principle. It just seems like time for it to be applied in a new way.

The people who do the shooting ought to be suitably trained, tested, and certified. (Their accuracy as marksmen would be demonstrated beyond all doubt.) A poster at the entrance to the building would give fair warning that no cell-phone conversations are permitted beyond a certain clearly marked boundary line. The consequence of violating this rule could be illustrated with artwork, perhaps involving some easily recognized cartoon character.

Shooting with actual bullets might be excessive. If the budget permits, some kind of taser gun would be appropriate. Failing that, buckshot would probably do the trick.

Admittedly, a rational person could object to my plan. “Wouldn’t shooting cell-phone users in research libraries be counterproductive?” you might well ask. “Wouldn’t that actually make the library more noisy?”

A fair point. Yes, it would. But not for long....

I began pursuing this line of thought under two inspirations. One of them came from reading the conservative British essayist Theodore Dalrymple, who frequently contributes to The New Criterion. A selection of his work appeared last year in Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, published by Ivan R. Dee. There is a grand tradition of reactionary cultural criticism. Regarding comprehensive misanthropy as a justified inference from the available evidence about mankind, it turns disgust into a systematic world view. Dalrymple often seems like the most skilled practitioner of this approach now writing in the English language. Many rant; few have his gift for it.

So, in part, I wanted to pay homage. At the same time, Dalrymple comes to mind for a reason. My policy suggestions are the result of long experience and growing frustration. In other words, I want to shoot those people. I really, really do.

Which is not, of course, a socially acceptable emotion. Acting on it is discouraged by law. One understands this, of course; hence the imagined compromise, in which trained personnel would execute the punishment.

Being forced to listen to one side of a manifestly inane conversation is now a routine part of public life. It is tolerable on the street -- but not, somehow, in a library; and in one mostly full of academic tomes maybe least of all. What’s worse, the rot is spreading.

Professors routinely complain about the presence of cell phones in the classroom. But the culpability is not so one-sided as all that.

A friend reports attending a session of a major scholarly conference -- a panel on some grave topic in military history, I think. From the audience came the distinctive noise of a cell phone ringing.

No surprise there, of course. But then its owner pulled out the phone, answered it, and began a conversation.

Here, a line has been crossed. Some implicit rule of conduct (normally unstated, simply because nobody should have to spell it out) has been violated. A fissure in civility has appeared -- and the responsible party deserves to be swallowed up in the abyss so opened.

At very least, that person has lost all reasonable claim to immunity from having a powerful blast of electricity delivered to his or her system by somebody carrying a stun gun and a permit.

Not likely, though. Without being too much a determinist about this, it does seem as if technology, in making certain kinds of behavior possible, also makes it inescapable. That, in turn, results in deep changes in attitude and personality.

A sense of entitlement trumps the capacity for embarrassment. By that point, there’s no going back.

Or is there? For many years now, I’ve been a fan of The Civilizing Process by the late Norbert Elias, a great study in historical sociology that was first published in 1939. In it, Elias worked out an account of how behavior changed in Europe between the middle ages and the early 20th century. He analyzed the evidence from diaries, letters, and etiquette books to see how the rules of everyday conduct developed over time. Things considered acceptable and normal in one century would be regarded with disgust and outrage in another.

Elias found that such changes were not a matter of fashion or whim. Nor were they trivial. The rules governing routine behavior were tied to two long-term processes underway. One was the growing complexity and interdependence of economic life. The other was the concentration of military power in the hands of the state. (We take it for granted now that the army or police are -- or at least should be -- accountable to the political authorities. But this is actually a fairly recent development in human history.)

As these tendencies were taking shape on the macro level, the little rules of daily life were changing accordingly. To keep things running more or less smoothly, each person was expected to internalize certain rules. Things that once happened without anyone noticing them came under increasing scrutiny.

“Do not spit into the basin when you wash your hands,” a medieval text admonished, “but beside it.” In 1714, a French handbook on etiquette suggested that you not spit unless absolutely necessary. In that case, be discreet enough to put your foot on it. (Also: “Do not spit so far that you have to look for the saliva to put your foot on it.”) By 1859, a British author noted that spitting was not just disgusting “but very bad for the health” -- so you should never do it, period.

A similar change could be traced in discussions of flatulence. In 1530, the very learned Erasmus of Rotterdam noted: “If it can be purged without noise that is best. But it is better that it be emitted without much noise than that it be held back.” If necessary, he said, you should cough simultaneously to avoid embarrassment. (My wife, who gave me The Civilizing Process as a birthday present some years back, would probably rather I not cite Erasmus so much.) By 1729, a French rulebook warned that the release of gas “is very impolite ... either from above or from below, even if it is done without noise.”

Over the course of two or three hundred years, then, the expectation grew that each individual would practice more and more self-regulation. Social life, as Elias puts it, came to resemble a modern highway: “Every individual is himself regulating his behavior with the utmost exactitude in accordance with the necessities of this network. The chief danger that people here represent for others results from someone in this bustle losing his self-control.”

It is the analysis of table manners that most closely anticipates the present cell-phone problem. Originally, the use of knives and forks was restricted to very elite members of the aristocracy. At first, even some of them found it pretentious and affected. (Here, one thinks of the portable phones of the 1980s, which were nearly as big as your head, and seemed mainly to be used by hotshot lawyers and stockbrokers trying to broadcast how very important they were.)

As the use of eating utensils spread, various rules emerged. “Do not clean your teeth with your knife,” the advice books often warned. That is a pretty good indication that lots of people were cleaning their teeth with their knives, since you don’t have to forbid something nobody actually does.

But Elias also notes something even more interesting. The knife, while a useful tool at the dinner table, was also potentially a dangerous instrument of aggression. The very sight of it may have provoked a fear that it would inspire hostility -- or that, if you mishandled it, you might carelessly hurt somebody else.

So the pressure grew discouraging people from using knives at the dinner table for any but a very few functions. If a piece of food can be cut with the edge of a fork (the rule goes) you should do so. By no means stab a hunk of steak with your knife and eat it. Etc.

“There is a tendency that slowly permeates civilized society, from top to bottom,” writes Elias, “to restrict the use of the knife ... and wherever possible not to use it at all.”

The cell phone, then, is a little like a fart, and a lot like a knife. In the most optimistic scenario, people will learn to control their behavior over time. Civility will be restored. It should take about two centuries. I figure three, tops.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

Passion for Paper

I am a digitally-enabled, network-ready scholar. I check e-mail and browse the Web. I read RSS feeds. I leverage Web 2.0's ambient findability to implement AJAX-based tagsonomy-focused long-tail wiki content alerting via preprint open-access e-archives with social networking services. I am so enthusiastic about digital scholarship that about a year ago I published a piece in my scholarly association's newsletter advocating that we incorporate it into our publications program. The piece was pretty widely read. At annual meetings I had colleagues tell me that they really like it and are interested in digital scholarship but they still (and presumably unlike me) enjoy reading actually physical books. This always surprised me because I love books too, and it never occurred to me that an interest in digital scholarship meant turning your back on paper. So just to set the record straight, I would like to state in this (admittedly Web-only) public forum that I have a deep and abiding passion for paper: I love it. Love it.

It's true that there is a lot of stuff you can do with PDFs and the Web that you can’t do with paper, but too often people take this to mean that digital resources "have features" or "are usable" while paper is just, you know, paper. But this is not correct -- paper (like any information technology) has its own unique form of usability just as digital resources have theirs. Our current students are unused to paper and attribute the frustration they feel when they use it as a mere lack of usability when in fact they simply haven't figured out how it works. Older scholars, meanwhile, tend to forget about paper’s unique utility because using it has simply become second nature to them.

Some of the features of paper are well known: Reading more than three pages of text on a screen makes your eyes bleed, but I can read paper for hours. You can underline, highlight, and annotate paper in a way that is still impossible with Web pages. And, of course, in the anarchy after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse the PDFs will be wiped clean off my hard drive but I will still be able to barter my hard copy of Durkheim's Elementary Forms of the Religious Life for food and bullets.

But my passion for paper is about more than preserving the sociological canon in a post-apocalyptic future. Using paper is embodied in a way that using digital resources are not. Paper has a corporeality that digital texts do not. For instance, have you ever tried to find a quote in a book and been unable to remember whether it was on the left or right hand side of the page? This just a trivial example of way in which paper’s physicality is the origin of its utility.

And of course professors have bodies too. This is another way that scholarship is embodied -- we often do it while in libraries. Here our bodies are literally in a vast assemblage of paper with its own unique form of usability. And as scholars achieve total communion with the stacks, they find books based not just on catalog number, but on all of their senses. The fourth floor of the library I wrote my Ph.D. in sounded and smelled differently than the second did. How many of us -- even the lab scientists -- with Ph.D.'s will ever be able to forget the physical layout of the libraries where we wrote our dissertations? Or our undergraduate libraries? I find books in my current library by comparing its floorplan with the layout of the college library where I first studied.

And catalog systems! I am a DU740.42 man myself, although I freelance in B2430 at times and of course retain a broader competence in G and GN. I was visiting a colleague at Duke once and went into its library to see what sort of GN treasures it might have stored away only to find that the library used Dewey Decimal -- a fact I experienced with surprisingly raw sense of betrayal.

The very fact that libraries can’t buy every book is a form of utility, not a disadvantage. True, there is tons of hubub about Web sites that provide users "personalized recommendations" based on their preferences and the preferences of people in their social networks. But in practice all this has boiled down to the fact that after years of using Amazon.com, it has finally figured out that since I enjoyed reading Plato's Republic, I might also be interested in Homer's Iliad. But every book in my library has been "filtered" by my librarian, and browsing through stacks arranged by subject allows "discovery" of "resources" in a non-metaphorical pre-Internet way.

At Reed, where I went to college, the library had a disused, musty room dubbed the "multiple copy room." Not surprisingly, it was where all the multiple copies of books were stored. The librarians at a small liberal arts college like mine did not buy 10 copies of a book unless they sure that it was a keeper, worthy of being taught for eons, its wisdom instilled into countless generations of students who would value it so much that they would weep when bartering their own copies of it for food and bullets after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse. Browsing through and reading from those shelves was the best "filter" for "content" that I ever had. So much for "the long tail."

And of course browsing doesn't just happen in libraries. Amazon may have a bintillion books for sale out in the ether of the ethernet, but there is no better place to take the pulse of academic publishing that a good used book store near a university.  Bookstores mark the life cycle and disposition of the community where they are physically located -- the end-of-the year glut of books dumped by students eager to rid themselves of dead weight like Anna Karenina in order to spend more time tinkering with their MySpace page is itself a good indicator of what a university has been assigning.

Bookstores also connect us to the larger scholarly community. Remainders -- books that are being sold at discount prices because publishers want them out of their warehouses -- are a remarkable measure of what fads have just passed in scholarly publishing or what is about to come out in paperback. And of course just being in a good bookshop can be therapeutic. A good friend of mine worked his way through college at a Walden Books. After work he would spend a half hour in the aisles of our local used book store, staring at the covers of Calvino novels until he had recovered from eight hours of selling people copies of The Celestine Prophecy.

The used book store is the horizon at which our human finitude and our books intersect. I have actually been turned on to the work of scholars based solely on the fact that I've purchased so many books from their collections. One book store I frequent actually put a picture of one recently deceased professor in the window to advertise that his library was on sale. Some find the practice morbid, but for me this sort of thing is the academic equivalent of the life-affirming musical number in The Lion King about how we are all part of the circle of life. Roscher and Knies costs $180 off the Internet and is scarcer than hen's teeth, but in that magical, electric moment that I found it used for 20 bucks I knew that in cherishing and loving it I would not only be honoring the memory of the previous owner, but perpetuating the hopelessly over-specialized intellectual lineage which we both cared about so deeply.

What I am trying to say is that owning and reading books is about our lives as scholars in a way that e-journals are not. Our libraries are furniture. They are decoration. They threaten the breathable air to paper ratio in our apartments and offices. Books spill over my shelves. They crowd my kitchen table. We are what we read. On my bedside I currently have one Hawaiian language textbook, Dan Simmon's science fiction novel Hyperion, Jonathan Lamb's Preserving the Self In The South Seas: 1680-1840, Eugene Genovese's Roll Jordan Roll and Jean-Luc Nancy's The Inoperable Community. In this combination I find elemental solace.

Our collections of physical, paper texts do not only help explain who we are to ourselves, they signal this to our visitors. When my guests first enter my apartment and make a beeline to my shelves they are actually learning more about me. When they admire my copy of Roscher and Knies I am learning something about them. When they spot my first edition of Ricky Jay's Cards as Weapons or Scatological Rites Of All Nations I know that I have found a true soul mate. I am convinced that this is somehow more important than finding out that the professor in the office next to me reads the same cat blogs that I do.

It is easy to see that paper will continue to be used by academics for a long time to come purely on the basis of its utility as an information technology. But we are not passionate about paper because it is a good research tool. We are passionate about it because of the way that it smells and feels. Our love of paper springs from the way it insinuates itself into not only our career, but our souls. This is why, after The Big Electromagnet Pulse, I won't be working desperately on some computer somewhere trying to resurrect my metadata. I’ll be fortifying the multiple copy room and trying to figure out how few copies of The Andaman Islanders I’ll have part with to keep alive until someone manages to turn the power back on.

Author/s: 
Alex Golub
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Alex Golub finished his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2005 and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.

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