The Troubled Future of the Nineteenth-Century Book (essay)

A version of this essay was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, December 2011.


The Troubled Future of the Nineteenth-Century Book

Andrew M. Stauffer


What is the future of the general collections in academic research libraries in the wake of wide-scale digitization?  The question has particular urgency for scholars who work on materials from the long nineteenth century.  In most cases, pre-1800 books have been moved to special collections, and post-1923 materials remain in copyright and thus on the shelves for circulation.  But college and university libraries are now increasingly reconfiguring access to public-domain texts via repositories such as Google Books and the HathiTrust Digital Library.  As a result, library policy makers are anticipating the withdrawal of large portions of nineteenth-century print collections in favor of digital surrogates.  This massive transition is occurring with little input from the students and faculty, for whom the library serves as their primary research lab.  Scholars with an interest in the printed record of the nineteenth-century need to get involved now, before the sudden reconfiguration of the academic research library system makes that record inaccessible.

In January 2011, the OCLC (Online Computer Library Center) released a report written by Constance Malpas, entitled, “Cloud-sourcing Research Collections: Managing Print in the Mass-digitized Library Environment.”  This report focuses primarily on the HathiTrust Digital Library as a potential source for academic research library collections.   Comprised primarily of the library-contributed content from the Google Books project , the HathiTrust is a consolidated digital repository that includes approximately 2.2 million public domain volumes.  As Malpas states, “One of the hypotheses that this study set out to test is that the HathiTrust Digital Library represents a potentially rich source of digital surrogates that might, over time, effectively replace a substantial proportion of low-use print collections in academic libraries” (25).  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report finds that yes, the replacement of “low-use print collections” with HathiTrust surrogates makes a lot of sense. Malpas concludes that “It is in the interest of all academic libraries that mass-digitized collections…improve to the degree that low-use print inventory can be retired in favor of increased reliance on digital surrogates” (64).  Such recommendations from leading policy makers in the academic library community suggest the seriousness of the challenge to public-domain print collections in the coming decade.

Other library policy organizations have produced similar or related visions of the academic research library’s digital future.  In September 2009, an ITHAKA Strategy and Research report appeared, written by Roger Schonfeld and Ross Housewright, with the ominous title, “What to Withdraw,” and subtitled “Print Collections Management in the Wake of Digitization.” Recently merged with JSTOR to provide access to scholarly journals online, ITHAKA made the case that university libraries should start de-accessioning collections of print journals and rely solely on digital versions: “The large-scale digitization of print journal collections has led to most access needs being met via digital surrogates. Numerous libraries would therefore like to reassign the space occupied by print collections towards higher-value uses” (2).  Although the recommendations are ostensibly confined to journals, the language of the report encourages a slide towards print collections generally., in line such as, “we do not assume that there is any intrinsic value to the maintenance of collections of print artifacts but rather take a critical perspective to analyze why the community might want to keep any print at all” (3).   In a 2001 report, “The Evidence in Hand,” Stephen G. Nichols and Abby Smith of the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) take a more generous view of faculty involvement in library decision-making, but warn, “Scholars may not see preservation of research collections as their responsibility, but until they do, there is a risk that many valuable research sources will not be preserved” (82).  This same report concludes that, “It is not too early to plan for the eventual disposition of the scores, or even hundreds, of duplicate copies of individual items that scholars, voting with mouse clicks, prefer to use online”(28).   Of course, what counts as a “duplicate copy” or indeed an “artifact” should be the subject of much debate. It seems inevitable that, from the scholars’ perspective, inadequate principles of redundant or duplicate copies will be employed in culling the collections.

Of course librarians have always “weeded” the stacks; professional de-accessioning is part of the process of maintaining a healthy library system.  But we are now facing a much larger and more sudden transformation.  The movement of circulating collections to off-site storage is now standard practice at many academic research libraries; and regional repositories for little-used print collections (such as ReCAP serving Columbia, Princeton, and the NYPL) are a growing phenomenon.  The idea of a network of a small number of national repositories has been widely suggested as the next stage in this process, meaning wide sharing and many fewer printed books held.  Cue the widespread de-accessioning of public domain books.  One gets the impression that academic research libraries are weaning users from material formats, encouraging trends already in place and effectively ensuring the reduced call for and access to the physical objects they hold.  As students and researchers visit the stacks less frequently and demand ever-greater digital access to materials, libraries are under pressure to justify money spent on their print holdings.

Books, and especially nineteenth-century books printed on poor paper, are expensive to shelve, preserve, and circulate.  If few people are using them, and no one is making a convincing case for their retention, budgetary pressures (including the mushrooming expenses associated with providing digital access to materials) will inevitably force the physical books off the shelves.

As the director of NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship) at the University of Virginia, I work daily with projects involved in digitizing the historical record of the great age of industrial printing.  Our collective goal is to open up these materials to various kinds of search, discovery, visualization, commentary, contextualization, and collaborative research.  At the same time, NINES has always stressed that such digital archives are not replacements for the material texts they represent; rather, they are simulations or models, close relatives of the traditional scholarly edition.  The books on the shelves carry plenty of information lost in the process of digitization, no matter how lovingly a particular copy is rendered for the screen.  And in the case of Google Books and HathiTrust, the emphasis has been squarely placed on quantity over quality. If our academic research libraries replace large swaths of their original nineteenth-century artifacts with these hastily-executed scans, they will be trading away irreplaceable legacies and gutting certain disciplines that rely on the evidence of the past.  They will also be putting the real world of the historical book ever further out of reach of the students, even as they ostensibly are providing access to it via surrogates. In such a future, nineteenth-century books will be simultaneously instantly accessible and out of reach, splayed and untouched, so that, as things of paper and ink, they will be even more difficult to remember or rediscover than things truly forgotten.

To be effective, the case for the retention of nineteenth-century printed books in academic research libraries cannot take the form of general laments or calls to save everything.  Rather, academic library policy makers should work closely with scholars who specialize in the history of the nineteenth-century book, recognizing that this particular set of materials (published roughly from 1800-1923) is under threat, given the rise of digitized public domain texts.  Such collaborative policy groups could address the following topics: 1) the place of the historical library collections in the university’s mission;  2) guidelines for retaining or disposing of books, including plans for discovering what is really on the shelves; and 3) the public case for increased funding for the libraries.  Such groups will have to form and move quickly: library policies are changing now, and in a decade or two, it will likely all be over, as the wide-scale reliance on digitized surrogates pushes the public domain physical collections to the margins or out of the libraries completely.

At this moment, humanities scholars whose work touches the long nineteenth-century have a vested interest in lobbying for the retention of the printed record in the general collections of academic research libraries.  Such collections are their labs, places for discovery and the foundation of entire disciplines.  Scholars of the book know that there are vitally significant orders of variation and signification in the stacks: editions, printings, issues, states, bindings, illustrations, paper type, size, marginalia, advertisements, and other customizations in apparently identical copies.  This archive of the history of the making and consumption of books cannot be replaced by single-copy scans; and new scholars of the historical record cannot be trained on simulations.  It may be that, as a constituency, the scholars simply do not have the political power to keep these materials in place, as priorities shift and the culture of digital information transforms the idea of the university.   Yet such projected de-accessioning raises larger definitional questions that should engage us all: what are academic research libraries for?  To what extent is the university invested with the stewardship of the past?  How will the humanities change in a digital age, for better and worse?  What was a book?  Searching conversations should be had, priorities agreed upon, and avenues for collaborative fundraising explored, before the trucks come to take away the nineteenth-century printed record for good.


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