Here, Now, In Person: Library collections in a shared environment

Libraries traditional collected various materials, especially books, journals, printed material of all kinds, and sometimes art pieces or other physical items. As time went on the list expanded to sound recordings and videos, whatever the device (LP records, CDs, DVDs, etc.)

At the same time, libraries embraced cooperation: the "inter-library loan office" (resource sharing) at Sacred Heart University Library is a vital service.  "Loan" is now a misnomer: more than half of our resource sharing transactions obtain a copy (digital or photocopy) which is not to be returned –a service, not a loan.

Indeed, with such cooperation, with e-books, with digital media of all kinds and better players (iPads, Kindles, iPods, and all their kin), why bother trying to gather or collect anything?  Why not simply depend upon the network?

This is the crux of the pundits' argument that libraries will simply disappear in the brave new information world where everything is available freely and easily.  Unfortunately, that world doesn't yet exist, and is unlikely to do so.  Information will not be available freely and easily for the simple reason that a great deal of it will continue –at least for the foreseeable future– to be controlled by for-profit corporations (e.g. Ebsco, Elsevier, ProQuest, and their kin). 

Of course, such information can be easily accessed via web browsers –but only with the right authorizations and passwords.  The proxy server makes some of this invisible, especially on campus, but those authorizations are still there.  The great information data-banks that corporations have built can exchange data but are no more likely to merge than will the great and regional banks suddenly coalesce into one financial institution.Information will remain divided into corporate silos, some openly accessible, some not.

The first thing that the library does is manage access to much of this environment of information.  All of this environment?  no –think of Google.  Even Google, however, has numerous aspects (Google Books, Google Scholar, Google Patents) which are little known to most users.  Librarians –libraries are primarily a service, not a thing– are critical navigators in this environment.

At great length –with all this! why collect anything locally?  The answer is: here, now, and in person.  When students and faculty are in "inquiry" mode, they want resources: the old amusing saying, "librarians like to search, everyone else likes to find" is true in a way.  There is no finding without searching.  Finding can mean materials online, and materials at hand.  We still live in an  environment of mixed media.  Some people prefer printed resources for a variety of reasons: layout, familiarity, ease of use, portability.  As mentioned before, paper is (all said and done) not a bad storage medium.

So the question: why collect? is answered: to serve students and faculty here, now, and in person.  The question can't be "how many print resources do we have?," but "how good are the print resources we have?"  Who now would bother to build a library to hold all the books available?  Who is really ready –now– to walk into a library with no printed books at all? 

The ease with which one private secondary school in Massachusetts disposed of its print collection is belied by its dependence upon other schools' print collections –resource sharing.  They simply outsourced their print needs to other schools –pleasant news to the budget officer, but with the an effect similar to living on take-out food rather than cooking your own in the kitchen.  It's not a bad thing to do for one meal or another.  But all the time?  What happens in the long run?  What happens when they lose access to critical intellectual resources because they have become unavailable due to contractual disputes between database providers? 

From Raj Patel’s book The Value of Nothing

"There are two novels that can transform a bookish fourteen-year-old's
life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a
childish daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially
crippled adulthood in which large chunks of the day are spent inventing
ways to make real life more like a fantasy novel. The other is a book
about orcs
." (p. 172)

Are e-books really Green?

Readers may have missed this engaging opinion piece in Sunday's New York Times: How Green Is My Ipad?

Granted, a true environmental audit of the life-cycle of either a printed book, or an Ipad, is presently an inexact science.  The authors present a plausible analysis, but it contains several asssumptions or unknowns, and given its length can't begin to get into the technicalities of print book production: illustrations? acid-free paper? binding type?  size of the volume? etc. –details which do matter in this context.

Still, very rough figuring in the world of libraries:

One e-book reader has the approximate impact of 100 printed book circulations (each circulation counting as one use, which is a debatable assumption).  Given the impact of individuals going to a library to get a book (on foot on campus, or using an automobile? or public transportation in a city? or a bicycle?), one might err generously and say that the approximate impact upon global climate change and human health would add up:

one e-book reader = 150 paper book circulations

but even that might be too generous.  Then must be figured in the cost of storage, retrieval, processing, and repair of printed books, which is a practically incalculable per-piece figure in an academic library with perhaps many hundred thousand volumes –some of which will remain in the collection for centuries or decades, while others are ephemeral.

A very general conclusion:  the positive environmental impact of e-book readers is often overerestimated, and the positive impact of many printed volumes is usually under-estimated.  In fact, paper is not a bad storage medium, in bulk.  It is expensive and time-consuming to handle.  On the other hand, the impacts on human health and global climate change of e-book readers and changing electronic formats cannot be over-looked in a pundits' rush to proclaim the death of the library.