I’ve long thought that the concept of “library” isn’t a very coherent one. The small town (pop. 300 or so) public library that serves my grandmother and the very large research library I work in are both called libraries, and yet their staff, collections, and mission couldn’t be more different. There are also often large differences in outlook even among academic librarians. Sometimes this is a teaching versus research difference, and sometimes a service versus collections difference. Few librarians seem to move completely to one side or another, and I certainly don’t, but the tensions are undoubtedly there in the profession, and often in the same library.
I’m thinking about this because of the juxtaposition of topics I’ve encountered so far today. This morning I attended a presentation by Bernard Reilly, President of the Center for Research Libraries. He discussed a lot of the initiatives currently underway at CRL, including a number of their digitization projects. One of them involves Latin American newspapers, and as part of an effort to make the materials more useful to the libraries in the region digital copies will be made available to those libraries as well as to CRL libraries, though not freely on the Internet. My favorite quote was that this project is “built on the assumption that an Internet cafe is not a library.” Though the CRL hopes to digitize a lot of material in the coming years, I seriously doubt that everything they have will ever be digitized. I wasn’t aware until today of how much of it isn’t even cataloged yet.
To the undigitized, and possibly never digitized collections of CRL, add the archives scattered across the globe. Then the book collections that aren’t now, and may never be digitized. That’s a lot of material that will never be freely available from an Internet cafe or your laptop, or even your university should they have the money to pay for such things.
Now let us turn to a blog post at ACRLog I read just after the presentation–Library as Place–For Air Conditioning Books. In it Steven Bell comments on a presentation by Adrian Sannier, Chief Technology Officer at Arizona State University. Bell excerpts a couple of tasty quotes. Here’s part of one:
If you were starting [an educational institution] today, how many books would you have? I know what I would do. I’d have none. I’d have zero. Well that would change my cost picture relevant to you and that would make my university’s knowledge so much more accessible to you both when you’re there and when you weren’t there. That kind of reinvention is what we’re talking about.
About that, I’m not sure what to say, except it wouldn’t be much of an educational institution, but more on that later.
Here’s part of another juicy one:
Burn down the library. C’mon, all the books in the world are already digitized.…Stop air conditioning the books. Enough already. None of us has the Alexandria Library. Michigan, Stanford, Oxford, Indiana. Those guys have digitized their collections. What have you got that they haven’t got? Why are you buying a new book? Buy digitial.…How many people are using the indicies we’re all paying so much for.…
Bell certainly realizes how ignorant (or perhaps deliberately provocative) Sannier is about book digitization and higher education, though he opines that maybe some IT people have it in for us librarians. Bell’s response is that If “academic libraries are being dismissed as one big book air conditioner then we better start doing some of our own transforming to make sure our operations are lean yet productive, and that we have the data to prove to the top administrators that our libraries deliver the best service for the tuition dollar. It must be shown that academic libraries directly contribute to students achieving learning outcomes and persistence to graduation.” That’s certainly a sensible approach, but there are other considerations to make about Sannier’s poorly informed presentation.
First of all, I find it difficult to take even remotely seriously. Dr. Sannier is no doubt a bright and competent man. He has a PhD in computer science, and before going to ASU worked with computer systems both in academia and private industry, according to his bio. My assertion isn’t that I don’t take him seriously as a professional, only that I can’t take him seriously as an expert on university research or teaching more broadly, that is, outside of the technological and digital portions of it. Obviously Google has not digitized all the books in the Google Book project libraries, and just as obviously the copyrighted ones they have digitized are not freely available online. Obviously also, as Bell note, curricula differ widely among educational institutions, and it’s not at all clear that even the complete collections available freely online at some of these libraries would satisfy all comers, which of course we know isn’t going to happen anyway.
I’d like to watch the entire presentation, but unfortunately right now I have a spreadsheet of 38,000 nondigitized book titles I have to go through line by line to make location decisions, plus I’m going on vacation next week, so I can barely break away to blog. Perhaps next time I have a free moment, which at this point will probably be New Year’s Day. Still, based on the excerpts as well as Bell’s reaction, neither of them are necessarily taking into account the larger mission of the research library. Bell’s response is to recommend that libraries make the case that tuition dollars are used wisely and student learning outcomes are met and they graduate. That’s all good stuff, and I think natural from a public services AUL at an urban state university.
But teaching students is but one mission of a research university, and not necessarily the most important one, if we judge by what professors get the most rewards for. The purpose of a research university is to research, to create knowledge, to contribute to the scholarly record, etc. This differs by field, naturally. In the sciences, engineering, computer science, and other areas, this may not require anything that can’t be accessed by a computer. In the humanities, area studies, and some of the social sciences, it does, and it most likely will for decades to come, if not forever. Yes, it’s possible that eventually every archive and book collection in the world will be digitized and available to researchers, even if not for free, like some of the collections coming out of the CRL are now available to research libraries. It’s possible, but it doesn’t seem very likely.
Another possibility is that enough material will be digitized that future researchers will just be content with what is digitally available and not worry about the rest. That’s pretty sloppy research, but as we know everyone, scholars included, prefer the good but easily available to the best but difficult to obtain. This could happen, but it wouldn’t negate the ideal of the research university or research library; it would just cheapen it.
It’s this perspective that makes it difficult for research libraries. Sannier rightly notes that no library is a universal library. No one has everything. That’s been the case for decades, though. The CRL, for example, was founded in 1949 to address this issue. That’s why we have cooperative agreements with other libraries. This is not even remotely a new issue. It might seem like a new issue now only if you think everything is digitized. Since most books, archives, etc., aren’t digitized, there’s nothing new being said about the issue. Just claiming it’s true doesn’t make it so.
I don’t think every institution of higher education should be a research university or every library a research library. I also don’t think that large libraries are necessary for most undergraduate education. It’s clear some fields hardly need library resources. Despite its dependence on monographs, a strong liberal arts education could probably be supported by a library of 10,000 books or so, if they were, for example, the 10,000 or so that Peter Briscoe in Reading the Map of Knowledge considers the “core.” And perhaps all those books would be digitally available to a new college today, or at least relatively soon. So, if we’re talking about starting up a new community college, or business school, or liberal arts college, this get-rid-of-the-print-books approach has at least a chance of working, though what liberal arts college would feel satisfied with a library so small I don’t know. Thomas Aquinas College, perhaps. But still, if one wanted to trim the collection to the absolute minimum necessary for a decent liberal arts college, it just might be barely possible. (That’s a lot of qualification, I know).
However, once we turn away from undergraduate education, the whole notion breaks down completely, and for any research university worth the name such a scheme is unthinkable if the library is actually designed to support any research. And the argument that no library is universal only goes so far. No library is a universal library, but it seems clear to me that the top 25 libraries or so plus places like CRL together constitute about as universal library as we are about to get. We can measure “top” anyway we please, whether it’s the number of items, amount of digital content, or financial resources. Regardless, there have to be a number of libraries that do their best to build just-in-case research collections for some fields so that we can all satisfy our otherwise insatiable just-in-time research needs.
A “research library” without print materials and climate control to protect them is an oxymoron. That might not always be the case, and I wouldn’t feel at all bad if the situation went away, but it’s here to stay for a long time to come. Print materials are still needed for research, and the purpose of a research library is to support research. I suppose some would consider me an excessive technophobe or bibliophile for saying that, but such is far from the case. I just want to protect research libraries and the universities they support from the excessive technophiles and bibliophobes that could destroy them if given a chance.