Print book reading is surging, just not in research libraries

US booksellers and public libraries are reporting strong growth in demand for print books, but research libraries are increasingly serving as archives, rather than references.

Despite this, there is little political will to reorient academic research libraries around electronic materials; attempts to reduce print collections or move them to long-term storage are staunchly opposed by students and faculty who often win their battles...but then fail to patronize the libraries they've saved, a phenomenon documented in an excellent Atlantic article by Dan Cohen, Vice Provost for Information Collaboration at Northeastern University.

Some of this is down to different nature of reading for academic reference and reading for other purposes: Cohen quotes historian Michael O'Malley: "We learn to read books and articles quickly, under pressure, for the key points or for what we can use. But we write as if a learned gentleman of leisure sits in a paneled study, savoring every word." Academics approach books like "sous-chefs gutting a fish."

I'm torn here. I love the idea of long-term preservation of books (the Internet Archive is trying to amass every book ever published, scanning them and then preserving them in giant, climate controlled warehouses), it's also clear that the use-case for research is very different from other forms of reading, and libraries have finite resources that should be oriented around serving their patrons needs -- and what the patrons demonstrate a need for is very different from what they demand.

With the rapidly growing number of books available online, that mode of slicing and dicing has largely become digital. Where students or faculty once pulled volumes off the shelf to scan a table of contents or index, grasp a thesis by reading an introduction, check a reference, or trace a footnote, today they consult the library’s swiftly expanding ebook collection (our library’s ebook collection has multiplied tenfold over the past decade), Google Books, or Amazon’s Look Inside. With each of these clicks, a print circulation or in-house use of a book is lost. UVA’s ebook downloads totaled 1.7 million in 2016, an order of magnitude larger than e-circulations a decade ago. Our numbers at Northeastern are almost identical, as scholars have become comfortable with the use of digital books for many purposes.

The Books of College Libraries Are Turning Into Wallpaper [Dan Cohen/The Atlantic]

(via Four Short Links)

(Image: Isaxen, CC-BY)