Should we take all the old books and digitize them? The old books would be available online/ in a digital format for historical researchers and we could save money by shutting down the book housing facility. But there’s a small problem. It is not possible in the foreseeable future to digitize every book. It takes massive amounts of man power to digitize a collection. It just isn’t feasible right now. Think about the Google Books project. It’s slow going and they must choose what they think are the most important books – they can’t get everything. If we rely on an initiative like Google Books (as cool as it may be) we will lose information from the past. That’s a little scary.
Let’s talk about subscriptions. I subscribe to Better Homes and Gardens. I pay for it, it arrives and I can read it for as long as the pages hold together. Libraries pay huge bucks, thousands of dollars, to subscribe to digital journals they do not get physical copies of. Ok, so what. They don’t want the physical copies because space is an issue. But ownership is an issue. The vendor providing the subscription can go out of business, change its policies or the library can decide it can’t afford the service anymore. All those journals the library paid for go poof! They don’t have a copy anymore. When you buy physical copies you get the text forever (or the life of the paper on which it’s printed). When you buy digital you don’t always get copies so information is lost when a subscription is canceled. This happens. And it’s another reason that digital documents aren’t ready to take over planet Earth.
There are initiatives going on to solve these problems. LOCKSS (lots of copies keep stuff safe) is based at Stanford University Libraries and tries to deal with the subscription issue. It’s a step in the right direction. But for now, print is our only guarantee that information will remain available for years to come. I believe digital issues will be solved (some distant day) and that print will take the back seat. But until then, the book is needed and should be valued and given space in our facilities.