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Leaving the collections behind — Are we ready?

By James Mouw, University of Chicago | Mar 01, 2011

In pondering the future of academic libraries and, in particular, their traditional collections, I found it doubly ironic that I was asked to write this article. The first irony is that my institution is building a major library building on campus, one that will hold several million volume equivalents, providing for 20 years’ growth of our print collections. This flies in the face of common wisdom that physical libraries and collections are a thing of the past.

The second irony is that I am writing this for inclusion in Elsevier’s Library Connect Newsletter. Elsevier being one of the publishers for which it is clear that the future, and in many instances the present, is electronic. Some librarians believe this to be true to the extent that they are actively dismantling traditional collecting programs. In reality, several barriers remain before we can make the leap wholesale from print to electronic:

  • Assurance of completeness and long-term access. My readers worry that the information might vanish, and despite programs like Portico and others, they do not yet have confidence in our collective efforts. They are also concerned that features of the print will be lost, and point to cases where references have disappeared as an example of their issues. We do not yet have a consensus on when either a print or electronic version alone is sufficient and when we need to invest in both. It is easy to treat this as a monolithic “one for all” decision, a temptation only made greater by large-scale purchases of massive amounts of content. Indeed, each discipline and subdiscipline is different, and a single decision does not fit all user needs.
  • While libraries have built print collections for many valid reasons, one major reason was simply scarcity. If a library failed to purchase a book upon publication, it would be difficult or impossible to obtain a copy later. I would like to believe that in the electronic world a publication will be in print “forever,” but fear we are far from that point, so we will continue to collect for the future much like we have in the past.
  • Ability to option a print version quickly and inexpensively when needed. In the case of journals, our readers seem content to print the articles they need. With monographs, it is apparent that some uses will require a print version of the entire title. The ability to have a copy delivered within 48 hours or to print one on your own Espresso machine is close to reality, but not yet fully in place.
  • Concern that as we retool for the mainstream we continue to build collections in the traditional fashion when appropriate or necessary. This is not only a monetary issue, but also one of attention. Large libraries deal with much esoterica, and these materials are often more endangered than the output of major academic publishers.
  • Inability of libraries to work collectively. The virtual world opens up possibilities for resource sharing in ways the print world did not. Our record of cooperating in the area of collections is not especially positive. We must retool our collecting to take advantage of new opportunities for collaboration.
  • Lastly, even with the amount of effort spent discussing the future of scholarly communication and the opportunities afforded by new technologies, the reality is that for the most part libraries continue to purchase the same things we always have and at more or less the same level; the only difference is in their format. True discussions about the transformation of scholarship are only now beginning.

My final irony is that we are in a period of prosperity in terms of our ability to collect materials broadly and deeply at exactly the same time we are in a period of famine in terms of funding. My hope is that we will use this reality as an opportunity to collect more wisely, to not automatically provide access to materials that will be easily available later, and to work together more cooperatively. My fear is that we will simply buy less.