Is this e-book library revolution all that is cracked up to be?

In don’t usually write about ‘work’ in this blog, as it is purely a hobby to expel some proverbial hot air on issues that interest me.  Of course work does interest me. I am passionate about libraries and their function in helping people get information, but I don’t usually think of this personal blog as a vehicle for my thoughts.  However I do have a bit of a bee in my bonnet at the moment.  So apologies at anyone who usually reads about Association Football and politics, you may want to click away to somewhere else.

One of the things I tend to get to hear constantly about the ‘future of libraries’ is that they are either going to change dramatically and will be smaller and with less librarians because everyone will come in with their iPads or whatever and get their books on line and won’t need to go to a shelf.

We often come across blogs (mainly from tech wizzes) that state that libraries will be museums, and books will be like vinyl records a niche curiosity.

We also come across talks in Library seminars that scares us to adapt or die.  That if we don’t get with the program of the E revolution we will become redundant and the librarian as a profession will go the same way as lamplighters and telegraph operators and we will be all out of a job and we will have only misery and doom in front of us.

I am not saying that libraries are, and will be different from the past.  Even I when a student bemoans that fact that a book is termed as ‘available’ on the catalogue but cannot be found still think how easy they have it.  In my days..I had to find a book in a huge card catalogue.  If it wasn’t on the shelf I had to go to the librarian who would look through a sets of borrowing cards and check if it was out, and when it was due back.

I am sure that someone somewhere has done a thorough study and a PhD about young students being totally digital literate and laughing at those quaint little books on the shelf, but my observation is quite different.

What got me thinking about it is when I went to a new PhD candidates seminar last week.  After my spiel about he library etc. a student asked me about journals and books that have been placed on storage.  He didn’t like it at all.  I did respond that there is a space issue, but with that I also said that the library is going more electronic.  He shook his head and said that his thinking process was really aided by browsing and looking at hard copies books and journals and that looking at computer screens wasn’t the same.  And this was an atmospheric scientist.  Someone who deals with very advanced applied mathematics, not some esoteric book loving historian doing a thesis on the literature of sub Roman England.

Maybe this may be with older students.  What about the young ones straight from high school?  They should take electronic material like ducks to water.  In some cases in first year recommended reading books we have an electronic and a hard copy version.  I expected that the hard copy would gather dust as everyone will go for the electronic version. But it was one of the most borrowed books.  When I asked a couple of students why they didn’t go for the electronic version, they said they did.  Mainly when the hard copy was out, but their preference was the book.  “I don’t like reading too long on the screen’ was the answer.  Or ‘I can take the book anywhere’.  Of course if the University decides to give an iPad to every student (as some Universities are doing this may be less of an issue).  But I also got responses that “prefer the book” or “I seem to study better with the book”.  Further to this I wonder whether there is a tendency for us ‘older’ cohort to overestimate the digital literacy of younger people.  From what I have observed the digital knowledge is restricted to what they need.  But once you go beyond that they are as novices as the rest of us.

I am not saying that the move to electronic/digital is not worthwhile.  I get plenty of appreciative comments from staff and postgraduate that they can get stuff in their office and homes etc.  But I do wonder whether this “become digital or we are totally doomed’ message is all that correct.

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