Library Past, Library Present
The age and angst of digitization

Vol. 8 No. 3
December 2005/January 2006

Return to Contents

Library Past, Library Present
The age and angst of digitization

Comparing Libraries

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

Science Study Abroad
The Whys and Why Nots



On September 6, Emory’s Woodruff library celebrated one of its newest and potentially most influential acquisitions. Not the monumental Danowski collection that arrived in more than 1,800 boxes, or the 1,600-volume Ingall Sanskrit collection. No, the muted hullabaloo accompanied the grand opening of Jazzman’s, a coffee bar on the first floor, where guests nodded approvingly at the vaguely art deco appointments while they sipped complimentary lattes and munched coffee cakes and brownies tendered by attentive employees.

Across the hall in a locked room, a relic silently bears witness to
the brash newcomer: the old card catalogue, gathering time in solid wood cabinets that stretch along an entire wall, their rows of
diminutive drawers sketching an even, geometric rhythm. From their hand-typed contents—unaltered since March 31, 1997— emanate the musty smell sure to spark academic memories for anyone schooled when a mouse was still just a rodent and windows didn’t crash, they simply broke.

Here then, separated by a few feet, is a forgotten icon of library past, and a mocha-scented emblem of library present and future—a place where students and faculty can jack into networks awash in information tumbling in from far flung origins and never touch a book; a place where food and conversation—eating and talking in the library!—are the norm, and where content, like food and drink, is a marketable commodity to be consumed, replaced, and even altered unpredictably.

The vision and reality of the digital library are upon us, but those who predicted (or fretted) that computer facsimiles would completely displace hardbound books and journals have been (happily) wrong, or at least grossly premature. “This is one of the great quandaries of the twenty-first-century research library, because we’re building something that is both print and electronic at the same time,” said Linda Matthews, Vice Provost and Director of Libraries.

Digitization is most pronounced in the sciences, where thousands of journals are accessible via the Internet, and where research older than a few years is often irrelevant. (Overall, Emory subscribes to more than 16,000 journals.) To Gray Crouse, professor of biology and a member of the library policy committee (, the notion of a physical library has become almost obsolete. Though his office sits a few hundred feet from the Health Sciences Library, he rarely visits anymore. Why should he, when from his desktop computer he can pinpoint and retrieve with laser-like precision virtually every resource he needs?

“Who wants that many pages of print to wade through? It’s an inconvenience,” said Crouse, hefting a 600-plus page issue of Genetics. (The 2004 volume of the Journal of Biological Chemistry contains more than 56,000 pages.)

But staying at the forefront of the digital revolution is expensive and sometimes exasperating. Science journal publishers, forced by the market to digitize their products, are dominated by a few key players who typically bundle publications in all-or-nothing deals at celestial prices—often tens of thousands of dollars. From 2000 to 2004, the cost of medical journals increased 40 percent, according to Sandra Franklin, director of the Health Sciences Library. The offerings seem to fluctuate frequently and without warning, and many electronic journals have large gaps that become apparent only when a computer search yields the online equivalent of a shoulder shrug.

“At least the book or journal in print form is stable, whereas electronic databases are mutable,” said Chuck Spornick, division director of collection management at Woodruff Library. Print, because of its fixed atomic presence, can be loaned to anyone without risk of violating copyright laws, and anyone visiting the library in person can view anything in the library’s holdings, whether print or digital. A supreme irony of electronic documents is that while they can be viewed by anyone with a link to the Web, for-profit publishers jealously limit access. “Publishers are very restrictive in who can use them,” said Matthews. “Unlike print materials, access to commercial electronic resources is governed by contracts with vendors. Often, we can’t make them davailable to people outside Emory without significant cost.” Google, through its widely publicized Google Print Project, had hoped to circumvent the tangle of access barriers by digitizing vast numbers of books, which could then be called up for free over the Internet. But authors and publishers rose en masse to protest and bring legal actions, alleging that the project amounted to massive copyright infringement (see sidebar page 3).

A book in the hand

Digitization has made some inroads into the humanities and social sciences, but the digital tide has not swept away an obstinate desire for print. “In the humanities and to some extent the social sciences, the library is our laboratory,” said Steve Strange, professor of philosophy and chair of the library policy committee. “The way you support us is to support the library collection. We worry about the issue that science and medicine bring in lots of money, but the humanities don’t. But if you want a prestige university, which Emory does, liberal arts education must be supported.”

Matthews agrees: “Building a collection that includes original research materials and rare books and manuscripts remains the only path toward differentiation. All [libraries] will have access to major databases. But distinctions will only be found in print holdings.”

“Much of my work and what I teach is based in periodical literature, often in foreign languages, not readily available online,” added Sarah McPhee, associate professor of art history, whose research focuses on seventeenth-century European art and architecture and who sits on the library policy committee. “This kind of material is absolutely essential to collect. The library has to keep the humanities alive while at the same time keeping up with the sciences. My strong feeling is that you can never let up in the acquisition of printed materials. It’s a balance.”

McPhee notes that when faculty candidates visit campus, they inevitably check the library holdings for material that supports their work. “If they don’t find it, you can forget about hiring them.” Then there is the inestimable value of holding an original, 400-year-old book with handwritten marginal annotations. “It makes you wonder who owned the book,” said McPhee. “It’s a very exciting thing for students, and it never fails to fascinate them.”

Timothy Dowd, associate professor of sociology, relies heavily on digitized journal articles for his research into the sociology of culture and organizations, including the recording industry, but he’s still drawn to the stacks. “I’m still pleasantly surprised at what I find adjacent to books I know about, and that’s something I’ll never abandon. But at the same time, it’s easier now to search for obscure things in libraries around the world.”

Dowd’s experience illustrates just one important way digitization has opened doors for humanities scholars, said Frances Maloy, head of Circulation Services for all Emory libraries and past president of the Association of College and Research Libraries. “Some analyze texts [using computers] and how authors use certain words. It’s been a boon.” In fact, circulation and interlibrary loans at Emory’s libraries have actually increased—a result, said Matthews, of an ever-expanding network of electronic databases that allow researchers to identify and corner their quarry, wherever it’s hiding.

Emory acquisitive

Emory finds itself in a rather enviable position of being able to expand acquisitions of both electronic and print materials. The school went from sixty-ninth in library expenditures among colleges nationally in 1980 to twenty-first last year (see sidebar page 3). Such rapid expansion doesn’t come without growing pains, and Emory’s libraries are bursting, in part because of the addition of so many books and journals, but also because areas that might otherwise house books have been appropriated for other uses, such as the information commons. About 10 percent of Woodruff’s print collection (and 30 percent of Pitts’) is housed in off-campus storage. Steps to increase on-site shelving have helped, but only marginally. For example, the addition of compact shelving on the fourth floor increased capacity on that floor by 50 to 60 percent—though library officials had hoped for an even greater increase. Next summer, compact shelving will be added to the fifth floor, and plans call for compact storage on all eight levels of the stacks within eight to ten years.

But library administrators and faculty are realistic about the library’s aspirations. “We are such a young research library with so many new academic programs that have begun only in the last twenty-five years,” said Spornick. “We don’t have the benefit of Princeton, Yale, or Harvard, which have been building collections literally for centuries.” But, he added, even the Harvards of the world can’t support every research area that every faculty member wants, a fact that presents Emory with its greatest opportunities and greatest challenges. “Every library can’t be excellent in every area any more.”

“The definition of a great institution is its library,” said McPhee. “It’s essential to keep ours top flight. Given our wealth and position, we have no excuse not to make it superb. What alarms me is when people say we can never catch up with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc., with our print collections, so why should we bother, we’ll just become the greatest in digital. Then I feel we’re on a sinking ship, because my work won’t grow, my students won’t grow, and my department won’t grow without a solid commitment to printed materials and the more traditional aspects of library collections.” —S.F.