A story in the Sunday New York Times highlighted the move of the undergraduate library at the University of Texas at Austin to a predominantly electronic collection. While common reference materials like dictionaries will remain in hard copy, all other stacks of books “will be dispersed to other university collections to clear space for a 24-hour electronic information commons, a fast-spreading phenomenon that is transforming research and study on campuses around the country.”
This move should not be taken as indicative of a larger trend within all libraries, but is something rather unique to undergraduate facilities. “The trend is being driven, academicians and librarians say, by the dwindling need for undergraduate libraries, many of which were built when leading research libraries were reserved for graduate students and faculty. But those distinctions have largely crumbled, with research libraries throwing open their stacks, leaving undergraduate libraries as increasingly puny adjuncts with duplicate collections and shelves of light reading.”
I can count on one hand the number of times I needed to go to the library during my undergraduate program to do research. And in the meantime, the number of digitized texts has risen dramatically, increasing the options for computer-based research (whether at a computer lab in the library or from your laptop in the dorms).
Keeping an eye on the e-text trend has been part of my task as associate editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality, and I wrote an article in the current issue of the Journal of Scholarly Publishing aobut the pressures and counter-pressures for academic journals to move toward digitization, “Scholarship at the Crossroads: The Journal of Markets & Morality Case Study.”
Part of the reason graduate and research libraries will not be moving to purely electronic media anytime soon has to do with the importance of prestige in scholarly publishing. As Geneva Henry, executive director of the digital library initiative at Rice University in Houston, says in the NYT article, “We’re teaching students how to do research. Their first reaction is to Google. But they need to validate their information and dig deeper.”
My inclination is to believe that the printed text will continue to be normative for initial publications (for a number of reasons, including prestige), but that once texts have been printed, they will be distributed and disseminated increasingly via electronic means. It will be a long time before the mainstream of authoritative academic texts are published first in electronic media.