By Stacy Nowicki, Library Director
When several library staff members showed me Emily Pizza’s opinion column “Print is Dead” in the November 6, 2013 edition of The Index, I think they all assumed I’d be upset. Actually, my first thought was: Awesome! Can we stop buying print books now?
I don’t think that would go over very well. See, the Library still circulates a whole lot of books, and last year K College students borrowed even more MelCat books than the year before. If print is dead, how could this be?
First, everything isn’t digital. Maybe someday, but for now…nope. Publishers want to make money, and they publish in whatever format users want (that makes the most money). Publishers know people are still attached to print. A recent study found that 89% of participants read a print book in the last 12 months, while 30% read an e-book. (Pew Research Center, December 27, 2012). Believe me, I’d love to digitize everything. We’re not there yet.
Further, libraries currently can’t lend or borrow published e-books and some electronic articles with other libraries. So when published materials are digital, we can’t even share them. Libraries have limited budgets and can’t afford to purchase everything. If this continues, a student’s world of information will get smaller, not bigger.
Second, there’s still a digital divide. Not everyone has broadband home Internet access. This mostly affects black and Hispanic populations, as well as people in rural areas (Pew Research Center, August 28, 2013).
Third, our brains like paper. We often comprehend and remember text better on paper rather than on a screen (Ferris Jabr, “Why the Brain Prefers Paper.” Scientific American, November 2013, p. 49).
Finally, Emily herself explains some of this print love: the Internet has an image problem. Kind of like (fill in the celebrity blank: Miley Cyrus, David Hasselhoff…I date myself). This is why we can’t think of Google as “a paperless library”, as Emily recommends. Some of the good stuff might be there somewhere (Knight Rider), but there’s also a lot of crazy (drunk hamburger-eating video) staff, as well. Don’t conflate the “free” Web (stuff you find on Google) with the “paid” Web (stuff the library buys). Remember that thing about peer review in your First-Year Seminar? No? Here it is: Anyone can say almost anything on the free Web. Publishers charge for the good stuff (which students don’t see, because librarians make this seamless). Lots of people think the free Web is the whole Web. It’s not.
That doesn’t mean that good researchers only use print. Oh heck no. Print is just a format. The K Library has been buying e-books for over a dozen years, and electronic journals for way longer than that. We get it – electronic is searchable and more accessible. But research today isn’t either electronic or print: it’s both. Your professors, dear students, want you to remember to use the print resources.
Here’s a cautionary tale. A woman died in 2001 because a Johns Hopkins University medical researcher didn’t find print-only articles from the 1950s that warned of drug toxicity. Oops. (“Causes of Asthma Study Risks May Have Been Overlooked.” New York Times, July 27, 2001.) The point: limit yourself to Google and you won’t see the whole picture. By the way, Google filters your results depending on who you are. You’re living in a filter bubble. (http://tinyurl.com/FilterBubble)
And let’s face it: some people just like print. Why? Reliability (peer review), permanence (ever search for a website and gotten “404 Not Found”?), and tangibility (books make nice gifts, can be written in, and are safer to use in the tub). Ever see a coffee table Kindle? Me neither. And I remind Breaking Bad fans that Walter White was ratted out by a print copy of Leaves of Grass sitting on top of his toilet. Maybe if Gale had given him an e-book…but I digress.
I’m all for electronic formats. But I’m not ready to declare print dead. It’s checking on its 401(k) and dreaming about retirement, but dead? Not quite yet.