Let’s Call an End to the War between Print and Digital?

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Stockholm Public Library. Image via Pixabay.

There’s no doubt that the 21st-century library is gradually transforming from an information hub into a digital learning environment, and with this change, there has been a trend of architectural renovations to accommodate digital natives. To create room, libraries are moving massive print collections from their shelves into remote storage, compact shelving or automatic retrieval systems. Naturally, this has resulted in the usage statistics of print resources dropping, whilst digital usage continues to rise exponentially.

Now, as a digital magazine platform, you’d probably expect us at Exact Editions to be rubbing our hands together in glee, but that’s not the case. We are strong believers that print and digital resources exist in a symbiotic relationship. Of course, some readers prefer the print copy, and others prefer digital, and that is their prerogative. Perhaps we are being romantic, but a library without shelves of books just doesn’t seem right.

This leads us back to the original point of the article. Why are libraries investing huge sums of money on building renovations when digital collections require no physical space? Especially considering those digital resources can be accessed anywhere and anytime on any device by students and staff. That is one of the primary USPs of digital resources — the unlimited accessibility. So what’s the impetus for change? I think there is a sense of apprehension in the library industry, that the physical building is being replaced by a digital construct, and so they are trying to attract people with study spaces.

This departs from the emphasis on content which was so central to libraries in the past. Instead, the industry is leaning towards providing collaborative work areas, encouraging group study and creative sessions, rather than being a place for students to find information. Again, we are not against the development of library-provided technology (such as 3D printers, recording studios and group study rooms), but must the shelves be sacrificed? Why can’t these areas be located elsewhere in the university, or in a new building?

There is a dangerous trend of libraries thinking they must replace the shelves with digital-friendly workspaces, when in fact they risk ripping out the heart of the library. This does not need to happen, there is a choice. Digital collections are designed to supplement print resources, think of them as the left atrium, which exists in the cloud, beating in tandem to support the library system.

We’d like to see libraries turn their focus back to content acquisition, and providing their users with the widest range of information possible. There is certainly a demand for a productive learning environment which must be met, but libraries should not depart from their roots. Libraries are intended to connect people with content, not replace content with people.

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