ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Laura Braunstein, English Language and Literature Librarian at Dartmouth College.
I was chatting recently with a professor in my liaison department who was beginning research for a new book. Did she have everything she needed? Was there anything I should look into ordering? Yes, she said, the library was pretty well stocked with books and journals for the topic. However, many of the books she needed we only had as ebooks – for those, she would order print copies through interlibrary loan.
One of my colleagues had a similar experience. He was talking to several of his liaison faculty about a new ebook collection in the Humanities. The collection would be great, they told him, when they needed to look something up quickly, or search for a mention of a particular topic. But they would still want print books for serious study – ebooks weren’t the same, they told him, “we just don’t read that way.”
Many of these professors own Kindles or other ereaders, and love them – for reading the latest Ruth Rendell mystery on a six-hour flight to France to visit an archive. It’s one thing, they tell us, to read for pleasure on a screen – but it’s quite another to read for understanding, for critique, for engaging in the scholarly conversation. And this isn’t a generational matter – some of the faculty I know who seem most committed to print are younger than forty.
Does reading in the Humanities necessitate the long-form, linear, analog experience of the codex? Even when I tell these professors about the features available in some of the new ebook platforms – highlighting, annotation, sharing notes, etc – they still assert that they “just don’t read that way.” (And what applies to reading is even more crucial in writing – when it comes to tenure or promotion, they tell me, no monograph “born digital” would ever “count” in the way a print book would.)
Ebooks seem like sweet low-hanging fruit – they have enhanced searchability, accessibility at any time or place, and reduced storage and preservation costs. What’s not to love? Ebooks seem to make our students very happy. Often they don’t want to read a book cover to cover (although their professors might wish they would), and searching for relevant passages seems to satisfy their needs for many assignments. And journal literature seems exempt from the preference for print – I haven’t heard many complaints about deaccessioning back runs of print journals represented in JSTOR’s collections, for instance.
Is a user who routinely requests a print copy when the ebook is in the library’s holdings just multiplying the costs we thought we were saving? Should we deny these requests? Should we tell our Humanities faculty that even if they “just don’t read that way,” they should, because that’s the way the world of scholarly communication is moving in most other fields? Do we need to change their habits of reading, and habits of mind? Do we lead them to new formats or follow their preferences?