Libraries: Paper or Digital?

journalInside Higher Ed points me to a new study [PDF], “What to Withdraw: Print Collections Management in the Wake of Digitization,” on how academic libraries should cope with the increasing availability of scholarly journals in digital form. They go through great pains to argue the need to maintain print. From the executive summary:

This analysis finds several rationales for retaining some copies of the print version: the need to fix scanning errors; insufficient reliability of the digital provider; inadequate preservation of the digitized versions; the presence of significant quantities of important non-textual material that may be poorly represented in digital form; and campus political considerations. The appropriate disposition of print copies of a given journal should vary depending on the characteristics of the print original and its digitized version in each of these categories.

Because many of the rationales for retaining print are likely to decline over the course of time, this report introduces time horizons for print preservation. Librarians have often discussed preservation responsibilities as if it were possible to undertake perpetual commitments, but specified time commitments coupled with regular reassessment of priorities and responsibilities permit better decisionmaking. The model we propose therefore examines the minimum period of time that access will be
needed to at least one copy of the print original.

While complex, this methodology provides for preservation frameworks that vary based on risk profiles. For example, text-only materials require less concern than image-intensive materials, while high-quality digitization processes digital preservation practices similarly indicate lower concern. These rationales indicate the need for at least one print copy of well-digitized digitally preserved text-only materials to be available for at least 20 years.

In order to guard against losses over time and assure the availability of a single copy after the stated time horizon, a greater number of print copies of any digitized title need to be secured today. In the exemplar scenario, a minimum of two page-verified print repository copies would be needed. When such well-digitized digitally-preserved text-only journals are held in two page-verified print repository environments, therefore, other libraries can safely withdraw their print holdings if they so

In candor, I haven’t read — nor am I likely to read — beyond the executive summary.  But it strikes me that these rationales mostly apply to archival libraries — the Library of Congress being the most obvious example — rather than to working university libraries.  There’s simply no reason for the average PhD-granting institution — let alone regional universities — to budget for print editions of journals, which are 1) ridiculously expensive, 2) take up enormous space, 3) can be accessed by only one user at a time, and 4) easily damaged through use or malice.  (Pages being ripped out are not uncommon.)  Most scholars will simply conduct their research from the comfort of their office computer, which has become increasingly the norm over the past 15 or so years.

FILED UNDER: Education, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t know what things are like now but when I was in graduate school it wasn’t uncommon for entire runs of journals or copies of books that were central to a field to disappear from the library proper into the offices of the faculty, unavailable to anyone else.

  2. James Joyner says:

    It was indeed common for faculty to keep books for months or years on end, although all the schools I was associated with had a recall program whereby anyone could file to have the book to return in 3 days or so. I was never at a school that allowed journals to be checked out. Even as a faculty member, I had to make photocopies. By the end of my teaching tenure, though, electronic copies became available.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    My small experience as an undergrad assistant to a prof. was that copying journals usually involved a lot of spine-breaking and need for book-binding repairs that took the journals out of commission for at least some amount of time.

    At least that is how I was taught by my professor to photocopy. “Put you’re back in it, man!” “Don’t worry about damages, the library has people for that sort of thing.” “Academics, ain’t for sissies, my boy!”

  4. J.W. Hamner says:

    At least in my field, electronic copies didn’t become standard until sometime in the 2000’s… and while most journals have gone back and digitized into the 90’s (some like J Phsiol go back to the 1800’s) , it is not universal and scanned hard copies vary quite a bit in quality. It is not unusual to find ones from even just the 80’s that are barely legible.

    I’m no librarian and won’t read the article either, but I’d say keeping around hard copies while older articles are digitized makes a lot of sense… it gives you more opportunity to catch mistakes in the scanning.

    I would agree, however, that if they are advocating maintaining print collections of journals published *this* millennium… then that’s pretty silly, since the PDF essentially is the original.

  5. floyd says:

    Print copies are not subject to the hand of the revisionist. To the extent that this is not considered a problem, electronic libraries have advantages.
    The caution remains … “Libraries” should be guarded against becoming LIE-braries at the hands of the revisionists!