Friday, April 29, 2011

Library tales

The Little Professor has a post up about the University of Denver, which decided that a modern library could do without those messy paper things with pages. You know the things I mean: they have no digital content at all and are thus entirely useless. Best to put them in an off-site storage facility where they won't be in the way of students who want to hang out with their laptops. Here's someone who speaks for a lot of us:
Faculty members who have objected say that, while database research is important to modern-day academics, Denver researchers will invariably lose out on serendipitous discovery that comes with perusing a library’s stacks. “I know it’s kind of a touchy-feely argument, and I wish I had documented my own experience to prove it,” Headrick said. “But it’s very, very common in a lot of the social sciences. I’ll leave with five other books that I find while looking.
It's funny. We believe in digital serendipity: we find things when we're searching online that we never thought we'd find, and we boast about it. That's what Twitter is for, apparently. So why are we so apologetic about the "touchy-feely" nature of paper serendipity, which is at least as important to those in humanities fields?

And is anyone else getting tired of the argument that those of us who find it useful to look at books on shelves just don't get the digital age? I get it. I really do. Being able to search for and access texts online is a wonderful thing. But to sing the old song again, paper is a technology, too, and sometimes it's the most efficient one. I can scan through a book, read a few pages, check the index, and know whether to take it out or not in a minute or so.

I was thinking of this the other day when I went to our campus library, which was filled with students studying. (The presence of books doesn't seem to have hurt their ability to do this, by the way.) As I was checking out, the librarian helpfully pointed out that books could be delivered to departments if faculty ordered them. I appreciate that service and will probably take advantage of it at some point, especially if I'm pressed for time. There's a tradeoff, though, and its name is serendipity.


sophylou said...

Yes on all counts. And I'm a librarian and a humanities PhD, so my intellectual world feels split most of the time. I'm a subject librarian, and I totally get that my faculty want a range of materials. Electronic is great for some things, paper for others.

I was actually just talking about this with a colleague (who also has a PhD in a social science) -- about how's there's a kind of ageism going on where any thoughtful/critical discussion of social media and other digital-ness gets treated as signs that we need to get with the future, man. And/or that we're OLD. (But... but... I'm GenX!)

Why the zero-sum game? Why can't the future allow for multiple forms of technology?

But now I feel like I've said too much, and I'll get my librarian cred revoked...

Ink said...

So many hours have disappeared in the blink of an eye as I was lulled in unexpectedly by the other books on the shelf...sigh.

Historiann said...

I appreciate sophylou's comment as well as your thoughts, Undine. Of course, I'm in complete agreement, but it kind of blows my mind that *librarians* at uni libraries are not, overall. When I've posted about the folly of libraries de-accessioning books before, I've been surprised at the negative (and even quite pointed) reactions from librarians who appear to have drunk the digital/twitter kool-aid and who dismiss my concerns as though I'm trying to save the buggy whip industry or something.

undine said...

sophylou--exactly! I hadn't thought of it as ageism, but it is that, too. The response I see is that the person promoting the technology slows down and repeats what it will do, while it becomes increasingly evident to me that he/she has not got the faintest, foggiest idea of the complexities of online or other technologies. It's maddening.

Ink--that's happened to me, too. I had to pass by a row of old Vanity Fair magazines the other day (from the 1920s), and I was so tempted to sit down and read them!

Historiann--I've met too many who have drunk the digital kool-aid and think I'm trying to save the buggy whip industry (great image!) (not you, sophylou!). The thing is, a lot of times they don't understand what I am saying at all about various forms of technologies and their uses.

Kath said...

Yes - very tired of the technophobe label.

But I just want to place a big thumbs up vote for "Paper is a technology, too, and sometimes it's the most efficient one"