8 No. 3
December 2005/January 2006
Library Past, Library Present
The age and angst of digitization
Copyright foul or access fair?
"You can never let up on the acquisition of printed materials. Print is fundamental to the humanities, and the visual images are far better than anything yet available through an electronic purveyor. "
"The pressure is on from our scholarly communities, who for certain tasks want print, but for convenience, access, and other reasons want electronic."
Reading Reading Lolita
Memory, memoir, and history
Ethics and Incompetence
Lessons from Hurricane Katrina
Academic Exchange: What’s your overall take on the digitization of libraries?
Patrick Graham: In the popular press, they’re always looking for some big event that changes everything—a paradigm shift. I went to library school almost two decades ago, and even then there was talk about the electronic library, yet every year more books are printed on paper than the prior year. I don’t know of anyone in libraries who is predicting that electronic media will replace printed media. Most find that we’re dealing with a hybrid environment of digital and print. The pressure is on us from our scholarly communities, who for certain tasks want print, but for convenience, access, and other reasons want electronic. Often the electronic media are valuable supplements to the print. For certain types of research, the electronic version may suffice. But if you need to work through three hundred pages of text you’ll want the print version of the work.
AE: To what extent has digitization affected the theology library?
PG: In theology, I doubt more than 5 percent of research materials are available electronically, and it may be much less than that. The same would be the case with other disciplines in the humanities. In the sciences, business, and certain other disciplines matters are very different. Theology, though, is very dependent on print materials, so there is a challenge for the Pitts Library with its half-million-plus volumes to make its resources readily available to students and faculty. Our current building, for example, one of the first built on the Emory campus, was not designed to be a library. It won’t support compact shelving, lacks room for group study space and other library services, and will no longer accommodate the library’s holdings—about a third of our materials are in remote storage, and perhaps 90,000 volumes are still accessible only via a card catalogue. Most of our materials at Pitts are shelved on stacks that are ten feet tall, with narrow aisles. Lighting is poor, and the building as a whole falls far short of what Emory faculty and students expect. Therefore, we’re delighted that President Wagner and Provost Lewis strongly support Candler’s efforts to build new facilities for classrooms, offices, and a library.
AE: What changes have you noticed in the way students and faculty use the library?
PG: The introduction of computer technology has changed things enormously for everyone. The laborious work of consulting card catalogues or print indexes as a first step in a research project has now been replaced with quick and easy electronic searches, which typically permit greater precision and efficiency. Electronic resources also permit students and faculty to consult library resources from a distance and make fewer trips to the library itself. This is very different from circumstances a generation ago, and so one might suppose that fewer students would be spending time in the library building. Some studies have shown, though, that this is not the case, when the library building provides a comfortable environment and is well equipped. An appropriate library facility—even with all the latest in electronic tools for remote access—will see its usage increase as people find it a productive and enjoyable place to work and experience the benefits of academic community. A recent study showed that a successful library renovation could double the facility’s usage. In short, libraries are much busier and more complex environments than before. For those who enjoy learning and human interaction, it’s a fantastic place to work.
AE: What are your feelings on the relative merits of hardbound material versus electronic resources?
PG: Currently, there is strong demand for both, and each has its advantages. Electronic resources are especially useful for finding specific pieces of information, for reading articles of no more than about thirty pages in length, or for projects that require searching a large corpus of material. But if a project requires reading larger blocks of material or entire books, or the use of maps, charts, or other information best displayed in large format, most people prefer print media. In addition, many prefer print format for pleasure reading, and sometimes one’s location does not permit convenient access to the Internet or other electronic media.
Finally, I’d note that the consultation of older materials in their original print or manuscript formats, for example, allows one to use the texts as their producers intended and realize the value of that experience—to feel the heft of the large folio volume, experience the difference of a work printed in beautiful, large font, sometimes with elegant rubrication or illumination, as opposed to the same work printed in a small, inexpensive format. Sometimes such factors are important for the interpretation of texts or an understanding of the social location of those who issued them. Access to such original, physical volumes is not always possible, however, and so electronic access is certainly better than none at all.