There’s a lot of talk about the New York Times story about UT Austin’s undergrad library throwing out its books. Problem is, I don’t think it’s as exciting as people are making it out to be. First, the undergraduate library is one of 14 libraries on campus and the real issue was space, not books. When priorities change, but you don’t have enough money to break ground on new buildings, you’ve got to re-use the old ones. This wasn’t, as the synopsis of the Times story suggests, a decision to eliminate books.
Some who favor technology solutions are pointing to this story as proof that books have become irrelevant, while others see it as proof that IT folks are dangerous to libraries. Both views are wrong, obviously, but the Times’ headline and lead are so misleading that we can’t blame them. It might have been a lot less explosive if it read like this:
Large academic library allocates more space to technology by eliminating duplicate and unused books.
That said, it does appear to be true that books become less relevant to academic libraries with each passing day. Use of our full-text databases here grows by leaps and bounds each year, while book circulation continues a five-year decline. It’s not healthy to generalize one’s own experience, so I’ll add that I’ve heard similar stories from other academic libraries. The standard line is that students like databases because they’re available anywhere they have a web browser and at all hours of the day and night. But this explanation ignores two other aspects of these full-text electronic documents: they usually support searching within the text, and journal articles (most of this material is from journals) are usually more concise and to the point than a book. Of course, all three things (concise, searchable, and available) can be said about results found in Google.
Then I wonder, if ebooks were available online as many journal articles are, would they be as useful? I don’t really have to think about that too much, because O’Reilly’s Safari Bookshelf has already proven the point. Granted, these are technology books, and they’re often used for reference, but Safari serves their market well and I can see a lot of similarities between Safari’s customers and an academic library’s patrons.
Too bad, as TeleRead points out in a response to the Time’s UT story, that very few ebooks are available, and DRM, platform, and file format issues plague the few that are. Ebooks have the potential to be less expensive and easier to use than their paper-based cousins, but those three issues alone often have the opposite effect. The OpenReader project seems the most likely solution to the problem, and if we’re lucky they’ll turn out to be sort of a W3C for ebooks.
In an email to a colleague about this story, I found myself wanting to suggest he try out ebooks as they are now to see the good an bad of how they work. I emailed him the following:
- Start at manybooks.net where you can get free ebooks (most of them from the Project Gutenberg collection) in ten different formats.
- Fictionwise is one of the most successful book retailers, in part because they offer most of their copyrighted books without DRM, making them cheaper and easier to use.
- OverDrive is the most commercial of the bunch. They’ve made their name by building library ebook systems and back-ends for retailers. Problem is, their system and DRM is more expensive than printing and distribution of paper books, and the DRM limits their target platforms and makes the books difficult to use.
- On the other hand, you may be fully aware of all the failings of DRM and ebooks, so this may just be so much tedium. If so, please accept my apologies. Either way, I’d like to recommend Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture, a recent copyrighted book that his publisher is offering free in ebook form as a publicity stunt.