Friday, September 3, 2010

Library Insurance

It is a sad time for libraries. Once the pride of our communities (from small towns to large universities) they now struggle to keep patrons. And in order to keep up with the times, they are becoming a lot of things in order to justify their very existence - a lot of things, that is, except libraries in the real sense of that word. Books are being replaced by services and with the loss of these books, we run the risk of losing much of what we have worked so hard to learn.

A library is (and has always been) a place to keep literary and artistic materials. Traditionally, libraries have been comprised of current literature and stacks of older literature. (Many libraries also keep special collections of historic value.) Both were important. They also provided an atmosphere of learning. Libraries that were associated with colleges and universities provided an atmosphere where students could study quietly amid the volumes that they needed as reference materials. They also had access to the latest findings from their chosen fields with resources available to find information on practically any subject.

Today our libraries are mostly empty and students are finding all they think they need via computer. I have no intention of being critical of computers. To the extent that they improve our lives I welcome them. I must insist, however, that the move from the world of the library to the world of the computer is a risky thing. It is a move that threatens to destroy a great deal.

In the world of scholarship, for example, fewer and fewer volumes are being printed of many (perhaps most) important periodicals. Scholars are preferring to access articles on line from their office rather than walk over to the library. This is a convenience (I admit - and indulge in it myself). I certainly see no harm in this especially as it reduces the amount of environmental inputs and required shelf space needed to store books.

Many institutions have been wise enough to keep hard copies of these volumes on hand in case digital resources become temporarily unavailable. Of course it is impossible for any single institution to keep hard copies of everything that gets printed. So as a way around this, academic communities began a number of years ago sharing their holdings through a process of inter-library loan. This has been a real boon to scholars who have gained easier access to more materials. With an ever increasing amount of information getting printed, this service has become indispensible to serious research.

It's worth considering for a moment what shelf space in libraries meant many years ago and how it was managed. I have many fond memories of walking through the stacks of books as a graduate student at BYU in the 1980's and being amazed at the number of books. When I later transferred to The Ohio State University and discovered that its library was several times larger than BYU's I was even more amazed. The stacks of books made up several floors in the main library and space was being made to add more shelves in the mezzanine. Many subject libraries were already being moved to satellite locations to make room for the ever increasing number of volumes.

Some time later when I began studies at Colorado State University, I noticed that space was being handled in a different way. Many of the volumes had been moved to a storage facility - basically an over-sized warehouse. Requests had to be made for these volumes and there was a lapse of a day or two before a runner could find them and make them available. It was fortunate that many of these volumes had been moved because the Cache le Poudre River flooded in the mid-1990's and many of the volumes on the first floor of the library were destroyed.

Meanwhile, many volumes of older literature are now being digitally copied and made available on-line. Cornell University, for example, has made available hundreds of volumes of older agricultural literature that is hard to find elsewhere. This again is a great resource. Every year, more and more volumes become available in all branches of learning. And as a bonus we now have hand-held digital devices that make reading this material much easier and more enjoyable than older technology allowed. It is a great time to be doing research now that many older texts are becoming more readily available at our fingertips.

So doesn't all of this contradict my point? Not in the least. With all the technology (great as it is) our literature is increasingly at risk. Notice the trend. Fewer and fewer hard copies are being printed as more and more people are staying away from libraries (because more and more resources are available on-line). Libraries compensate by reducing shelf space in order to draw in more patrons with services (even coffee shops). It doesn't take much to imagine a scenario of computer collapses where vast amounts of information are irretrievably lost. This sort of collapse doesn't have to be a global melt-down. It could be local, or a series of local disasters.

Let me offer an example. I have in my library several volumes of taxonomic revisions that are very difficult to find. I require them for my research on insect diversity. I have worked at building this collection over 30 years. Much of this work was published when insect taxonomy was of greater interest to the academy than it is today and many more volumes were printed. Now when I say that many volumes were printed, I don't mean to compare this literature to the number of volumes that works of popular fiction generate. But many of these earlier taxonomic works had printing runs of several thousand copies. Even so, they are hard to find today.

If that is true of older literature, what is the situation like today? Important taxonomic research is still being conducted but it is often printed in journals with fewer and fewer hard copies produced. Authors buy fewer and fewer reprints because their work can be accessed on-line. It is very likely that hard copies are missing of these works from entire regions of the US. As a result, hard copies of current taxonomic research will be many times harder to come by in future than the older literature is today. Digital versions of this work are usually located on one server (hopefully backed up). If it gets lost... I think you get the point.

What then can be done? Clearly we should not be limiting computer resources. They are truly valuable - even if, indirectly, they justify the demise of traditional libraries and the loss of books. One thing, however, should be done: you should continue to keep hard copies in your own library.

I’m not suggesting that you accumulate a wall of books of best-selling authors. They will survive the short term disaster without difficulty. And their long-term survival will depend on their usefulness to later generations. I am suggesting that you save less popular works - titles and authors that because of their limited popularity are usually missing from libraries.

My collection of Gerald Durrell books, for example, or my volumes about science and religion. It is rare that I find any of these titles in local libraries. I don’t generally flatter myself about my collection. Mostly it takes up a lot of space – space that my wife would love to have. But it is a bit of security. I’ve been buying books for a few decades and only rarely pick a title because of its monetary value. I buy books that interest me. Even so, many of these volumes are now hard to find. What will they be worth in 50 years or more?

So again I urge you to buy real books. Think of it as insurance for the authors you love – for the books that you love. It may be that you end up saving one for future generations. Stranger things have happened.

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