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Friday essay: why libraries can and must change



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New technologies are taking books and libraries to places that are, as yet, unimaginable.
Shutterstock

Camilla Nelson, University of Notre Dame Australia

There is a chapter towards the end of Stuart Kells’s The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders, in which the author envisions the library of the future as one in which “dreary hordes of students” stare mindlessly at “computers and reading machines”, ignorant of the more refined pleasures of paper and ink, vellum and leather.

This – the death of the book – is a familiar lament recounted by bibliophiles everywhere; a tragic epic in which the Goliath of technology slays the David of art and culture.

It may be superficially appealing to some. And yet, it misses the reality that writing itself is also a technology. Along with the wheel and the lever, it is one of the greatest technologies ever invented. The history of writing predates the invention of the book. It parallels and is a part of the history of other technological forms.

The history of the library is replete with mechanical marvels.

An illustration of a bookwheel from 1588.
Wikimedia Commons

Take, for example, the book wheel, the scholar’s technology of the 16th century, an ingenious mechanical device operated by foot or hand controls, allowing a reader to move backwards and forwards across editions and volumes, referencing many different books as quickly possible.

Closer to our own century, there’s the Book Railways of the Boston Public Library installed in 1895, with tracks laid around every level of the stack to transport books. Or the ultra-modern teletype machine and conveyor belt used to convey book requests by the Free Library of Philadelphia in 1927. Or the current book retrieval system used at the University of Chicago, which boasts a system of robotic cranes.

Unlike Kells, I think there is a fabulous quality to the dream of an infinite library that can assemble itself in bits and bytes wherever a reader calls it into being. It sits well with the democratic dream of mass literacy.

It may well take an archaeologist – working a thousand years from now – a lifetime to unlock the data in our already defunct floppy discs and CD Roms. Then again, it took several hundred years of patient work before Jean-François Champollion deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1822, and even longer for Henry Rawlinson to unlock the secrets of the cuneiform scripts of ancient Mesopotamia.

Of course, Kells’s new book is not a history of reading or writing. It is a history of books as artefacts. It tells of books of doubtful or impeccable provenance, discovered in lost libraries or inaccessible private collections, purloined by book thieves, or crazed and nefarious book collectors, or at the behest of rich or royal patrons. It is a narrative – albeit with an unfortunate, cobbled together quality – brimming with strange anecdotes about a small handful of books owned by a small handful of people; lost books yielding strange surprises, from discarded condoms to misplaced dental appointment slips.

Kells’s favoured haunts are the chained libraries of medieval monks, and the bawdy or scandalous collections of wealthy 18th century patrons. The library of St Gall, for example, which houses one of the largest medieval collections in the world. Or the Bodleian at Oxford, which was never intended to be an inclusive collection, but rather, as its founder Thomas Bodley put it, sought to exclude “almanackes, plaies, and an infinit number” of other “unworthy matters” which he designated “baggage bookes” and “riff-raffe”.

Tourists at the Bodleian Library in 2015.
shutterstock

I am a great lover of books. I have been lucky enough to while away the hours in libraries from Beijing to St Petersburg, Belgrade and Buenos Aires. But in an age of economic disparity and privatised public services – of pay walls, firewalls and proprietary media platforms, not to mention Google and Amazon – it is difficult to feel convinced by this bibliophile’s nostalgic reveries.

Embodying an idea of society

More than 20 years ago, when I was living in New York, eking out a living as a copyeditor and more often as a waitress, I became a regular at the 42nd Street Library (also known as the New York Public Library), on Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets, a few blocks from the apartment that I shared in Midtown.

It was not just the size of the collection that drew me in – the 120 kilometres of bookshelves housing one of the largest collections in the world – or the ornate ceilings of the main reading room, which ran the length of a city block, with 42 oak tables for 636 readers, the bookish dimness interrupted by the quiet glow of reading lamps. I was fascinated by the library’s pneumatic system.

This labyrinthine contraption, which had been state-of-the-art around the dawn of the 20th century, sent call slips flying up and around through brass tubes descending deep underground – down seven stories of steel-reinforced book stacks where the book was found, then sent up on an oval shaped conveyor belt to arrive in the reading room.

The pneumatic system – with its air of retro, steampunk or defunct book technology – seemed to intimate the dream of a future that had been discarded, or, at least, never actually arrived. Libraries are not just collections of books, but social, cultural and technological institutions. They house not only books but also the idea of a society.

The main reading room of the New York Public Library.
Mike Segar/Reuters

The predecessors of the New York Public Library, the Carnegie libraries of the 1880s, were not just book stacks but also community centres with public baths, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, and in at least one strange instance – at the Allegheny library in Pittsburgh – a rifle range in the basement.

Earlier in the 18th century, with the rise of industrial printing technologies and the spread of mass literacy, not only libraries but as many as a thousand book clubs sprang up through Europe. They were highly social, if occasionally rowdy places, offering a space not only for men but also women to gather. Monthly dinners were a common feature. Book club rules included penalties for drunkenness and swearing.

So too, the fabled Library of Alexandria – where Eratosthenes invented the discipline of geography and Archimedes calculated the accurate value of Pi – was not a collection of scrolls but a centre of innovation and learning. It was part of a larger museum with botanical gardens, laboratories, living quarters and lecture halls. Libraries are social places.

Lost libraries

Kells’s Catalogue of Wonders is at its best when it recounts the stories of these ancient libraries, charting the accidental trails of books, and therefore ideas, through processes of translating, pirating and appropriation. And the trades and technologies of papermaking that enabled them.

The library of the Pharaoh Ramses II in the second millennium BCE contained books of papyrus, palm leaves, bone, bark, ivory linen and stone. But “in other lands and other times,” Kells writes,

books would also be made from silk, gems, plastic, silicon, bamboo, hemp, rags, glass, grass, wood, wax, rubber, enamel, iron, copper, silver, gold, turtle shell, antlers, hair, rawhide and the intestines of elephants.

A page from the 13th century Devil’s Bible.
Benedictine monastery of Podlažice/Wikimedia Commons

One sheep, he says, yields a single folio sheet. A bible requires 250. The Devil’s Bible, a large 13th-century manuscript from Bohemia, was made from the skin of 160 donkeys.

Ptolemy founded the Library of Alexandra around 300 BCE, on a spit of land between a lake and the man-made port of Pharos. He sent his agents far and wide with messages to kings and emperors, asking to borrow and copy books.

There are many stories about the dissolution of this library: that it was burnt by invading Roman soldiers or extremist Christians or a pagan revolt – or that a caliph ordered the books be burnt to heat the waters of the urban bathhouses. Or just as likely, as Kells points out, the scrolls, which were made of fragile papyrus, simply disintegrated.

But the knowledge contained in the scrolls never entirely disappeared. Even as the collection dissipated, a brisk trade in pirated scrolls copied out in a nearby merchant’s district ensured that the works eventually found their way to Greece and Constantinople, where other libraries would maintain them for another thousand years.

Destroyed collections

One thing that Kells fails to address in his book is the problems that arise when books are excluded, destroyed, censored and forgotten. And, indeed, when libraries are decimated.

Any list of destroyed libraries makes startling reading: The libraries of Constantinople sacked by the Crusaders, the Maya codices destroyed by Franciscan monks, the libraries of Beijing and Shanghai destroyed by occupying Japanese forces, the National Library of Serbia destroyed by the Nazi Luftwaffe, the Sikh Library of the Punjab destroyed at the behest of Indira Gandhi, the Library of Cambodia destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

More recently, thousands of priceless manuscripts were burnt in the Timbuktu library in Mali and rare books spanning centuries of human learning were burnt at the University of Mosul. Yet more book burnings have been conducted by ISIS, in a reign of cultural devastation that includes museums, archaeological sites, shrines and mosques.

There is also destruction for which the so called “Coalition of the Willing” must accept responsibility. Dr Saad Eskander, the Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive, reported the devastation of the library in a diary posted on the British Library website: archival materials 60% lost, rare books 95% lost, manuscripts 25% lost.

An Iraqi man collects books from the destroyed Iraqi national library in Baghdad in April 2003.
Gleb Garanich/Reuters

There may be something not quite right in mourning the death of books in a time of war, as people are dying. But the problem remains that without books and documents, the history of the world can be rewritten.

Indeed, as Iraqi librarians sought to preserve the bookish remains of their country in the still working freezer of a bombed out Iraqi officer’s club, the US military quietly airlifted the archives of the Baathist Secret Police out of the country.

These are the dark places where, as George Orwell once said, the clocks strike thirteen, and Kells does not go.

Of course, the great irony of censorship and book burning is that books are destroyed because it is believed that they are important, and they possess a certain power.

Libraries of the future

In the age of the globalisation of everything – and the privatisation of everything else – libraries can and must change. It is seldom discussed that one of the great destroyers of books are actually libraries themselves, bearing cost cuts, and space limitations. But this process can be ameliorated by companies such as Better World Books that divert library books from landfill, finding new owners and funding literacy initiatives – you can even choose a carbon neutral footprint at the checkout.

Libraries, by which I mean public libraries that are free, open and accessible, will not become extinct, even though they face new competition from the rise of private libraries and the Internet. Libraries will not turn into mausoleums and reliquaries, because they serve a civic function that extends well beyond the books they hold.

Libraries can and must change. Quiet study areas are being reduced, replaced not only by computer rooms but also by social areas that facilitate group discussions and convivial reading. There will be more books transferred to offsite storage, but there will also be more ingenious methods of getting these books back to readers.

There will be an emphasis on opening rare books collections to greater numbers of readers. There is and must be greater investment in digital collections. Your mobile phone will no longer be switched off in the library, but may well be the very thing that brings the library to you in your armchair.

The ConversationThe much heralded “death of the book” has nothing to do with the death of reading or writing. It is about a radical transformation in reading practices. New technologies are taking books and libraries to places that are, as yet, unimaginable. Where there will undoubtedly be new wonders to catalogue.

Camilla Nelson, Associate Professor of Writing, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Should writers be paid for their e-books lent by libraries?


Rita Matulionyte, University of Newcastle

When libraries lend books to the public, authors and publishers receive remuneration from the Government under the Lending Rights schemes, but this is not the case when libraries lend e-books. Is this fair?

This year, the government has distributed almost A$22 million under these Public Lending Rights and Educational Lending Rights Schemes. For each book in public library collections, creators receive $2.11 and publishers receive $0.52.

The amount that each claimant receives is often not very significant, with the majority of authors receiving between $100-500 annually. Still, a previous study has revealed that this remuneration constitutes the second most important source of income for creators from their creative work.

E-books, however, are not covered by these Lending Rights schemes. This may not be a big issue at the moment, since only 3.5% of library holdings are e-books and most publishers still release books both in print and e-book formats.

But e-book lending is increasing and, according to the Australian Library and Information Association, e-books are likely to reach 20% of library holdings by 2020. Also, most, if not all, self-published titles are done so in digital format only. Such self-published titles, if lent by libraries, would not qualify for any remuneration.

For this reason, authors and publishers have been lobbying the Government to extend the Lending Rights Schemes to e-books. Although the Book Industry Collaborative Council made such proposal already in a report of 2013, nothing has happened of yet.

One of the main reasons why e-books are not covered is that e-book lending is quite different from print book lending. In case of print books, authors and publishers are arguably losing on customers and revenues when libraries loan their books for free.

Creators only receive $2.11 and publishers receive $0.52 for each book in public library collections.
svklimkin/Morguefile

At present, in the case of e-books, many publishers chose not to sell these books to libraries. Also, publishers assume that libraries will lend e-books to many readers so they often charge libraries three or more times the price that consumers are paying for the same e-books.

While publishers charge libraries high prices for e-books, writers complain that these amounts do not reach them. Publishing contracts often don’t specify whether and how much authors receive for e-books sales or for e-lending.

How other countries deal with this question

This year, a Public Lending Rights scheme was extended to e-books in Canada, with no payments for e-books yet. A few weeks ago, the Court of Justice of the European Union has confirmed that European Lending Rights scheme applies at least to certain e-lending models.

Government support for the publishing industry is declining, but Australian literature is vital for our culture and identity.
Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Should Australia follow the trend? Australia’s publishing industry, like the industry worldwide, has been in a decline for a number of years. Despite this, it is still our second largest creative industry and it is of no question that Australian literature is greatly important for local culture and identity.

Government support for this industry, however, has been declining over years. In addition, the Productivity Commission has recommended that the government eliminate the restrictions on parallel imports of books. If the government acts on this, it will likely reduce the income of Australian publishers and authors.

The Commission has suggested that the government replace parallel import restrictions with some other cultural support measures. However, in the current neo-liberal climate, with constant pressure to decrease public expenditure, it is unlikely that government will create additional schemes to support local writing.

One option could be the extension of Lending Rights schemes to e-books. However, extension alone would do little if the current funds under the schemes were merely re-distributed from books to e-books. For effects to be felt, there would need to be increased funding under the schemes.

The Conversation

Rita Matulionyte, Lecturer in Law, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Libraries aren’t ‘dead in the water’ – even if some have given up


Briony Birdi, University of Sheffield

Having spent 15 years researching public libraries and trying to emphasise their contribution to education and society as a whole, you might expect that I’d be delighted at the good news that our public libraries are finally receiving the media attention and recognition they deserve? Sadly not.

The recent boon in media interest is of course linked to a large-scale BBC investigation into the “real” picture of library closures, staff redundancies and budget cuts which have taken place since 2010, the year in which UK Chancellor George Osborne “unveiled the biggest UK spending cuts for decades”.

I was one of a number of people interviewed as part of the investigation, and have been quoted in two two depressingly entitled articles: one on how a quarter of staff jobs have been lost as hundreds of libraries close and another entitled “Libraries: the decline of a profession?”

The first article presented some stark statistics – based on an extensive series of Freedom of Information requests by the BBC – which revealed the extent of closures, planned closures and job losses, as well as the concurrent increase in community-run libraries – where the local authority hands over the management of a library service to a group of community volunteers – and volunteer staff.

Libraries aren’t over, they will just look different. A similar view was expressed by Elizabeth Elford of the Society of Chief Librarians, who observed “there will be fewer public libraries when we come out the other side, but they will be better and more innovative.” I sincerely hope that she is right, but I question whether the closure of so many public libraries could be characterised as a positive development.

Of course, not all libraries have “closed”. In addition to the 343 libraries no longer in existence since 2010, the BBC also reported that 232 libraries have been “transferred”, 174 of which have moved from council control to management by community groups (whether or not these should also be counted as “closures” remains a point for ongoing debate).

For Ian Stephens, chair of the Local Government Association’s culture, tourism and sport board, it is testament “to how much people value their libraries that so many have volunteered to help keep them open.” This might well be true but it provides little comfort to those volunteers who would have preferred the library service to remain council run rather than being forced to fend for themselves without professional training or long-term council support.

Community run

Community-run libraries are also under no obligation to conform to council standards and, as I keep being told by people working in community-run libraries, they feel that they are in competition with other libraries in the city or county, and are certainly not connected to them as they originally thought they would be.

More colour in the community.
Libraries Taskforce, CC BY

This would appear incongruous with the public library service so familiar to many of us, with one large central library providing the greatest range of resources, and a number of smaller branch libraries serving the different parts of the community. The community-run service, at least in its current form, does not appear to replicate this service, and, as the statistics show, we now have an utter lack of consistency of provision across towns and cities.

Supportive role

Volunteers have long supported library services by supplementing existing work – shelving, routine enquiry work, storytelling sessions, and so on – or by adding value to a service with more specialised skills, such as cultural awareness sessions from members of local minority ethnic communities. This is extremely valuable work, and in no sense devalues the existing service. Many of our students will work as volunteers in library services before coming on the masters programme, and it serves as excellent preparation for an information career.

However, some politicians and other commentators seem to forget that there is an important distinction between volunteers used to supplement an existing service, and volunteers either replacing the specialised roles of paid library staff, or working in “community-run” libraries. The second of these seemed at the time to relate very closely to the coalition government’s Big Society ideology, the impact of which is still being felt, particularly in terms of the ongoing drive for local authorities to make the most of ever-decreasing budgets. Certainly before 2010 the community-run library was a very rare phenomenon.

Last year I was told that public libraries – and, by association, any research into them – were “dead in the water”. No such demise has occurred, as I wrote in a blog last year. Nevertheless, the recent media coverage is a clear reminder that we cannot be complacent about the future of public libraries. These are very difficult times for these organisations and those who work in them, and it would be naive to pretend otherwise.

People who have devoted their lives to supporting public libraries are now suggesting that we have gone past the point of no return. Yet there are still a huge number of individuals and organisations who still firmly believe in the role of the statutory public library service in a democratic society, and are working tirelessly to ensure that it remains.

To those fortunate individuals who appear not to have seen the extent of the contribution a public library makes to its community, I repeat a point made by David McMenemy, in his book The Public Library: “In all of the discourse around the diminishing use of public library services it is crucial not to lose sight of the fact that many people within our communities continue to need the services they offer.”

Public library services remain one of the most significant and democratising assets within our communities and should not be sacrificed for economic or political expediency.

The Conversation

Briony Birdi, Lecturer in Librarianship, University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Whether stored electronically or written on calf skin, knowledge has never been more threatened


<Richard Ovenden, University of Oxford

Information is constantly under attack. The current debate around the longstanding use of vellum (a parchment made using calf skin) for printing key legislative documents highlights the continued concern over this. Some are advocating a switch from vellum to archive paper, which costs much less and can last up to 500 years.

Recorded information is certainly vulnerable: paper and parchment, and the inks and pigments that are written, drawn or painted on their surfaces, can decay and disappear if not stored in controlled environmental conditions.

And digital information is even more susceptible to degradation than that recorded on vellum. Operating systems and information environments change and develop rapidly, and as a result information created and stored on older systems easily can become unusable. It’s by no means certain that the digital information created by our parliament today will still be secure and reliably accessible in 200 years.

Books and manuscripts have been the targets of thieves for millennia. Whole libraries have been destroyed by invading armies and fanatical idealists. Even nature occasionally has played its part – the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD caused the contents of the Roman library at Herculaneum to become illegible. Libraries and archives have been dealing with these threats for centuries.

But the growth of digital networks as a means of storing and sharing information has created new hazards. Cybersecurity is increasingly a critical concern for modern organisations. All face the potential of hostile attacks on their digital information from cyber-criminals. And as age-old protectors of information, it’s up to libraries and archives to safeguard this knowledge from such assaults.

The Bodleian Library.
Paul Cowan/Shutterstock.com

Guarding knowledge

Libraries and archives have tackled the threats to knowledge with great ingenuity for thousands of years. The archives of Merton College, Oxford, for example, were stored from the 14th century in a building purposefully made of stone, with flooring made from tiles rather than wood to eliminate the threat of fire. And the founders of Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 1602 required all readers to swear an oath that they would not bring the library into harm, for example by pledging not to “kindle therein any fire nor flame”.

Libraries and archives have also been at the forefront of preserving digital information. Groups such as the Digital Preservation Coalition work together to develop the skills and techniques we need as a society to help manage and preserve the vast amounts of information created in digital formats. They have developed disaster recovery routines, back-up strategies, policies and a host of other collaborative arrangements.

Scholarly information is being protected through physical networks of connected computers, such as LOCKSS – an agency built on the proposition that “lots of copies keeps stuff safe”. And non-profit organisations funded by the library and archive communities, such as Portico, have developed large-scale capabilities for preserving books and journals in digital form, with backups in multiple locations.

Texts are harder to archive than letters.
AstroStar/Shutterstock.com

Personal information is also of great importance to society. Drafts of poems and novels, and the correspondence of politicians and scientists can help shine light on critical areas of history and science. Libraries and archives have always kept files of the letters of philosophers, such as Isaiah Berlin, or the drafts of speeches of Winston Churchill. But the intellectuals and political big-hitters of today are working in digital form, drafting their speeches using word-processing software, and exchanging emails and text messages with each other.

The preservation of this kind of information is much harder than the analogue equivalents. Librarians and archivists have therefore deployed techniques borrowed from fields such as digital forensics to ensure that these records are safeguarded for future generations to learn from.

Crucial role

But in the challenging fiscal environments of the early 21st century – a period hailed by many as the era of information – society runs the risk of endangering its future by neglecting the role of libraries, archives and museums). The global network of libraries and archives has been, and will remain, fundamental to the preservation and propagation of knowledge.

Society ignores the role of libraries and archives at its peril. Last year saw the 800th anniversary of that “great charter of liberties”, Magna Carta. It survives not in one copy but in multiple originals, distributed around the kingdom, as well as numerous later affirmations. Its survival as a potent set of legal and political concepts was in no small measure thanks to the role of libraries and archives in preserving the original documents.

William Blackstone, one of the most important legal theorists ever, was able to look at original engrossments of Magna Carta while writing his influential legal treatises, for example. His books went on to be read by Thomas Jefferson and the other founders of the American constitution.

A cello player in Sarajevo’s destroyed National Library, 1992.
Mikhail Evstafiev, CC BY-SA

In more recent times, we need only look at the actions of the army of Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They deliberately destroyed the national library in Sarajevo as a means of erasing the uncomfortable truths of history – a perverse validation of the democratic significance of libraries.

The costs of maintaining such a system of libraries and archives are trivial compared to the costs of other state initiatives or the revenues of the giant tech companies. But across the globe, the funding of many of these institutions is under severe pressure. In an age of “information overload”, we are in real danger of failing to ensure that succeeding societies have access to the wisdom, and error, of their predecessors.

The Conversation

Richard Ovenden, Director of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Whether stored electronically or written on calf skin, knowledge has never been more threatened


Richard Ovenden, University of Oxford

Information is constantly under attack. The current debate around the longstanding use of vellum (a parchment made using calf skin) for printing key legislative documents highlights the continued concern over this. Some are advocating a switch from vellum to archive paper, which costs much less and can last up to 500 years.

Recorded information is certainly vulnerable: paper and parchment, and the inks and pigments that are written, drawn or painted on their surfaces, can decay and disappear if not stored in controlled environmental conditions.

And digital information is even more susceptible to degradation than that recorded on vellum. Operating systems and information environments change and develop rapidly, and as a result information created and stored on older systems easily can become unusable. It’s by no means certain that the digital information created by our parliament today will still be secure and reliably accessible in 200 years.

Books and manuscripts have been the targets of thieves for millennia. Whole libraries have been destroyed by invading armies and fanatical idealists. Even nature occasionally has played its part – the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD caused the contents of the Roman library at Herculaneum to become illegible. Libraries and archives have been dealing with these threats for centuries.

But the growth of digital networks as a means of storing and sharing information has created new hazards. Cybersecurity is increasingly a critical concern for modern organisations. All face the potential of hostile attacks on their digital information from cyber-criminals. And as age-old protectors of information, it’s up to libraries and archives to safeguard this knowledge from such assaults.

The Bodleian Library.
Paul Cowan/Shutterstock.com

Guarding knowledge

Libraries and archives have tackled the threats to knowledge with great ingenuity for thousands of years. The archives of Merton College, Oxford, for example, were stored from the 14th century in a building purposefully made of stone, with flooring made from tiles rather than wood to eliminate the threat of fire. And the founders of Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 1602 required all readers to swear an oath that they would not bring the library into harm, for example by pledging not to “kindle therein any fire nor flame”.

Libraries and archives have also been at the forefront of preserving digital information. Groups such as the Digital Preservation Coalition work together to develop the skills and techniques we need as a society to help manage and preserve the vast amounts of information created in digital formats. They have developed disaster recovery routines, back-up strategies, policies and a host of other collaborative arrangements.

Scholarly information is being protected through physical networks of connected computers, such as LOCKSS – an agency built on the proposition that “lots of copies keeps stuff safe”. And non-profit organisations funded by the library and archive communities, such as Portico, have developed large-scale capabilities for preserving books and journals in digital form, with backups in multiple locations.

Texts are harder to archive than letters.
AstroStar/Shutterstock.com

Personal information is also of great importance to society. Drafts of poems and novels, and the correspondence of politicians and scientists can help shine light on critical areas of history and science. Libraries and archives have always kept files of the letters of philosophers, such as Isaiah Berlin, or the drafts of speeches of Winston Churchill. But the intellectuals and political big-hitters of today are working in digital form, drafting their speeches using word-processing software, and exchanging emails and text messages with each other.

The preservation of this kind of information is much harder than the analogue equivalents. Librarians and archivists have therefore deployed techniques borrowed from fields such as digital forensics to ensure that these records are safeguarded for future generations to learn from.

Crucial role

But in the challenging fiscal environments of the early 21st century – a period hailed by many as the era of information – society runs the risk of endangering its future by neglecting the role of libraries, archives and museums). The global network of libraries and archives has been, and will remain, fundamental to the preservation and propagation of knowledge.

Society ignores the role of libraries and archives at its peril. Last year saw the 800th anniversary of that “great charter of liberties”, Magna Carta. It survives not in one copy but in multiple originals, distributed around the kingdom, as well as numerous later affirmations. Its survival as a potent set of legal and political concepts was in no small measure thanks to the role of libraries and archives in preserving the original documents.

William Blackstone, one of the most important legal theorists ever, was able to look at original engrossments of Magna Carta while writing his influential legal treatises, for example. His books went on to be read by Thomas Jefferson and the other founders of the American constitution.

A cello player in Sarajevo’s destroyed National Library, 1992.
Mikhail Evstafiev, CC BY-SA

In more recent times, we need only look at the actions of the army of Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They deliberately destroyed the national library in Sarajevo as a means of erasing the uncomfortable truths of history – a perverse validation of the democratic significance of libraries.

The costs of maintaining such a system of libraries and archives are trivial compared to the costs of other state initiatives or the revenues of the giant tech companies. But across the globe, the funding of many of these institutions is under severe pressure. In an age of “information overload”, we are in real danger of failing to ensure that succeeding societies have access to the wisdom, and error, of their predecessors.

The Conversation

Richard Ovenden, Director of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Turning a page: downsizing the campus book collections


Donald Barclay, University of California, Merced

When, in 2005, the University of Chicago entered into a US$81 million renovation of a major library building, one of the primary goals was to ensure that the university’s collection of printed books in the social sciences and humanities would remain under one roof.

That goal was achieved six years later. However, it also meant that a good part of the library’s print collection, while technically being “under the library roof,” was moved “under the ground.” The renovation included a subterranean automated system that can store and retrieve up to 3.5 million books.

Chicago’s library project could well represent the end of an era – the era of colleges and universities expending millions of dollars so that printed books can be housed in on-campus libraries.

In my 25-year career as an academic librarian, I have witnessed the explosion of digital technology into academic life and played a part in the ongoing struggle to balance digital information with the familiar solidity of print in academic library collections.

While I believe there will always be a place for the book in the hearts of academics, it is far less likely there will be a place for the book, or at least for every book, on the academic campus.

Changing goals of costly shelf space

Keeping a printed book in a library is not cheap.

The most recent analysis pegs the total cost of keeping one book in an open library stack (the kind that allows browsing) at $4.26 per year (in 2009 dollars). High-density shelving, a less costly alternative to open stacks, comes at $.86 per book, per year (again, in 2009 dollars).

And given the costs, academic financial officers blanch at proposals to build new on-campus storage capacity for thousands, in some cases millions, of books.

This is not to say that academic library construction and renovation have come to an end. But rather than being conceived of as on-campus book warehouses, academic libraries are today being reimagined as spaces in which learning, collaboration and intellectual engagement take center stage.

Look at the following examples:

At Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), the web page providing information on the construction of a new library building for the Monroe Park campus proclaims:

90% of the new space will be for student use, not for storing books or materials.

The University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) is in the midst of an addition and renovation project that will add 60,000 square feet of new library space and renovate 92,000 square feet of existing library space.

The stated goals of the UCSB project include such desiderata as “expanded wireless access,” “additional and enhanced group study and collaboration spaces,” and a “faculty collaboration studio.” Additional book capacity is not part of the plan.

Even more extreme, the University of Michigan’s $55 million renovation of its Taubman Health Sciences Library (completed in 2015) has removed all print books from the library in order to accommodate classrooms and “collaboration rooms.”

An entire floor is now devoted to “clinical simulation rooms” where medical students hone their diagnostic and clinical skills through simulated hands-on practice.

Library space is today being reimagined for learning.
SeAMK Korkeakoulukirjasto, CC BY-NC-ND

All these are part of a mainstream trend in which the printed book, though still part of the academic library ensemble, is being relegated to the role of supporting player rather than the lead actor.

New ways of storage

In the face of these changes, academic librarians have no choice but to take action. Their challenge, though, is that there are simply too many print books and not enough on-campus space to store them.

The most obvious solution to too many books is “weeding,” the library profession’s term for removing books from a collection. While weeding creates space for new books, it has significant labor and disposal costs. Also, it can meet with stiff resistance from faculty and students.

So an increasingly popular strategy for managing overcrowded stacks is moving books to high-density, low-cost, off-campus storage.

This too can be met with resistance from faculty and students. For example, at Syracuse University, faculty reacted with with what was described as “fury” when campus librarians planned to move low-use books to an off-campus storage facility.

Even so, the practice has become routine for many academic libraries. As of 2014, an estimated 75 high-density academic library storage facilities have been built in the US.

Often located where land is cheaper and more plentiful than on crowded college campuses, climate-controlled high-density storage facilities house books and other library materials in space-saving compact shelving. While the items in such facilities are not browseable, their bibliographic records remain in the library catalog and the items themselves can be recalled if needed by a library user.

This number includes facilities that serve a single library. But it also includes several shared mega-facilities, such as:

The Research Collections and Preservation Consortium (ReCAP) – a partnership of Columbia University, The New York Public Library, and Princeton University – houses more than 12 million volumes.

Library shelf space is, after all, finite.
Penn State, CC BY-NC

The Minnesota Library Access Center – serving the University of Minnesota along with a consortium of smaller libraries around the state – has a capacity of 1.5 million volumes.

The University of Texas and Texas A&M shared repository, which opened in 2013, has a capacity for over one million volumes and is designed to be expandable to a two-million-volume facility.

The statewide Ohiolink system includes five regional repositories whose shared capacity approaches 10 million volumes.

The combined University of California Northern and Southern Regional Library Facilities have the capacity to house a combined 13 million volumes.

But because of the high costs involved, books are also being weeded out as they are moved.

Rather than keeping five copies of Book X, each deposited by a separate library, a shared storage facility may keep only a single “best copy” to be shared by all the contributing libraries.

Things have gone so far that Texas’ high-density repository is home to books that are the shared property of both the University of Texas and Texas A&M, a rather astounding state of affairs for anyone familiar with the length and depth of the rivalry between the two institutions.

Future of campus libraries

Besides building shared repositories, academic libraries are also developing distributed storage projects as a way of reducing the pressure on library stack space.

Rather than relying on large repositories, distributed storage schemes are based on multilibrary agreements. A member library agrees to hold an archival print copy of a bound journal or monograph so that other members of the consortia can dispose of their copies.

Academic librarians have formed a task force to investigate the creation of a distributed shared monograph archive on behalf of HathiTrust, a shared digital preservation repository containing the scans of millions of printed books belonging to a coalition of academic libraries.

The proposed HathiTrust monograph archive will allow those same academic libraries to reduce the footprint of their on-campus collections by relying on shared archival copies of low-use, mostly public domain books whose full texts are available digitally via HathiTrust.

While there is certain to be resistance to any future plans to move books out of campus book stacks, the inescapable calculus of more print books and less on-campus space to house them will, in the end, overwhelm resistance.

Academic library consultant Lizanne Payne accurately sums up the current situation:

On most campuses, library shelf space is finite and even shrinking. Gone are the days when a proactive library director could argue successfully for a library expansion to house more books.

Traditionalists may not like it, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, in the long term, campuses will not require ever more space to house printed books.

The Conversation

Donald Barclay, Deputy University Librarian, University of California, Merced

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How do libraries get away with banning books?


Clay Calvert, University of Florida

A dozen years ago, in his New York Times review of the best-selling British novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Jay McInerney (of Bright Lights, Big City fame) called it “stark, funny and original.” Told from the perspective of a 15-year-old autistic savant, the book is now a Tony Award-winning play.

But what’s hot on Broadway is sometimes too hot for Florida Panhandle high schools.

This past summer, the novel was pulled from the assigned summer reading list at Lincoln High School in Tallahassee, Florida. As reported by the Tallahassee Democrat, “the move was made to accommodate offended parents,” who apparently took offense to the dozens of instances of profanity in the text.

Whether it’s challenging Harry Potter books for promoting Satanism and the occult or wiping Fifty Shades of Grey from the shelves for depicting “mommy porn,”, it’s become all too common for books to be challenged – and sometimes banished – from local libraries and schools.

The American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week, currently in its 23rd year, officially celebrates and promotes “the freedom to read” by raising awareness of books that are most frequently challenged across the nation.

Perhaps more significantly, however, Banned Books Week also provides both a rudimentary barometer of contemporary cultural concerns – the flashpoint topics, ideas and words that push our censorial buttons – and a test of our core commitment to the First Amendment.

Beware the parental penguins

The challenged books let us take the pulse of American squeamishness and, more bluntly, intolerance. They reveal the concerns of the day that rub some people the wrong way, so much so that they take the time and effort to file complaints rather just averting their eyes or cautioning their own children.

Not surprisingly, sex and sexuality, along with religion, are hot-button topics. Number three, for instance, on OIF’s list of most challenged books for 2014 is And Tango Makes Three. The children’s book, which was inspired by actual events in New York’s Central Park Zoo, tells the story of two male penguins who hatch and raise a female penguin named Tango. Publishers Weekly called it a “heartwarming tale.”

And Tango Makes Three was banned in a number of libraries across the country.
jessica wilson/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Those challenging it, however, find it anything but heartwarming. Instead, it is “anti-family” and “promotes the homosexual agenda.” Then again, at least the book was not the most challenged this past year, as it was in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010 (the 2014 honor goes to Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian).

Culturally, the wrath heaped upon And Tango Makes Three suggests that one recent Supreme Court ruling aside, we are still conflicted when it comes to same-sex marriage (apparently for both humans and penguins).

Into the courtroom

Cultural questions, of course, sometimes spill into courtrooms. While the First Amendment explicitly protects freedom of speech, it also implicitly safeguards our right to receive speech.

As Justice William O Douglas wrote for the US Supreme Court fifty years ago in Griswold v Connecticut, “the right of freedom of speech and press includes not only the right to utter or to print, but the right to distribute, the right to receive, the right to read and freedom of inquiry.”

Griswold’s logic leads to convoluted case law surrounding public schools’ ability to regulate and ban books in their libraries.

In a 1982 case called Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v Pico, a New York school district sought to remove a number of books from library shelves, including Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and a Langston Hughes-edited collection called Best Short Stories of Negro Writers.

According to the school board, the titles removed were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-[Semitic], and just plain filthy.”

A fractured Supreme Court wrote that “the discretion of the States and local school boards in matters of education must be exercised in a manner that comports with the transcendent imperatives of the First Amendment.”

In other words, school boards have discretion to pick and choose books, but that discretion is confined by minors’ rights to receive a wide swath of ideas and information, not just conformist doctrine.

US Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote that schools couldn’t ban books ‘in a narrowly partison or political manner.’
Library of Congress

The court added that “just as access to ideas makes it possible for citizens generally to exercise their rights of free speech and press in a meaningful manner, such access prepares students for active and effective participation in the pluralistic, often contentious society.”

Lofty rhetoric aside, Justice William Brennan cobbled together a few rules that remain in place today: schools may not exercise their discretion “in a narrowly partisan or political manner,” and they “may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”

The court concluded there was enough evidence to suggest the school district’s reasons for removal violated the principles noted above, and it denied the board’s motion to have the case tossed out.

Indeed, the ALA makes it clear that despite a constant drumbeat to pull books from the shelves, “most challenges are unsuccessful and most materials are retained in the school curriculum or library collection.”

Of course, a few challenges do result in bans.

Ultimately, the problem of book banning and challenging won’t go away. Public libraries and schools with limited budgets must make tough calls on what to buy, remove or put behind the check-out desk. Their choices tell us much about where we stand culturally, while their willingness (for the most part) to combat challenges reflects their unwavering commitment to free expression.

The Conversation

Clay Calvert, Brechner Eminent Scholar in Mass Communication, University of Florida

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.