By late morning on Saturday, I had already seen a column written in The Atlantic by Dan Cohen (Northeastern U., formerly of DPLA) tweeted and posted on Facebook several times. The title was likely created to elicit gasps of horror (“The Books of College Libraries are Turning into Wallpaper: University Libraries Around the World Are Seeing Precipitous Declines in the Use of Books on Their Shelves”). But the truth is that this is not news to any of us who work in academic libraries. Most of us have seen annual circulation statistics in a steady decline for the past decade.
I work in the library at a relatively small (3600 students) public liberal arts college. We don’t have the same library mission (or budgets) as Northeastern, or UVA, or Yale. We purchase materials that support our curricula always balancing advanced research materials to meet faculty needs with the range of excellent academic titles that are accessible to undergraduates at a range of levels. And, to be honest, the only items we loan that have seen steady and even increasing use numbers are our “green bikes.” I’m actually pretty proud of that.
Reading Cohen’s column yesterday prodded me to write about something I have been thinking about a lot for the past few years. He acknowledges that graduate students, faculty, and even he use print less and in different ways than in the past for a variety of reasons. Digital formats are ubiquitous for those of us privileged to work at institutions that can afford licenses. And those formats, notably pdfs, can now be annotated. I won’t tell you how long I kept several shoe boxes full of the 3×5 index cards along with piles of photocopied articles that were the brain trust of my doctoral dissertation. I still have the books.
And then there are the five words I wish I could erase from the English language: peer-reviewed primary source journal. Cohen refers to this politely as the “increasing dominance of the article over the monograph.” Students are in the library asking for these before a week has barely gone by in the fall semester. Sometimes I’ll ask if they know what a journal is. Or an article.
Cohen suggests that too many students arrive at college without having caught the “reading bug,” and not having read enough books. I don’t think this is the problem (or at least not the all of it). I went to high school in the early 1970s – no computers at home or in school, no digitized text, no screens or portable devices. How many academic, secondary sources written for an academic audience did I read? Not many. And I was a voracious reader – of school textbooks, of literature, of popular fiction. OK, ok – I am a librarian and my first job was – you guessed it – in the local public library. I remember reading The Microbe Hunters (Paul de Kruif, 1926) and The Star-Gazer (Szolt Harsanyi, 1939) when I was much younger during my “I want to be an astronaut or a medical doctor” phase. I am eternally in debt to my mother for recommending these. You should read them.
But most of us did not encounter or use much academic source material in high school. We had to learn to use it in college and we did because that, and print journals, were what we had. And finding books was actually easier than finding articles. I am convinced that we should always be thinking about how we can work with our faculty colleagues to find opportunities for students to read and learn to use books (in any format) as partners in our inquiry.
Lately I have been fantasizing about working with a group of students focusing on reading one book for the semester and using it as a springboard for all kinds of thinking, inquiry, research, writing, and more reading. Think about how you might use The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (2015), Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American Cityby Matthew Desmond (2017), or Thick and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom (2019). Or better yet, Paying the Price (Sara Goldrick-Rab, 2016). There are so many to choose from in every possible discipline.
What if students spent the semester reading the book, discussing how the author constructed it, thinking about what questions the author asked and which ones they didn’t, and then coming up with new questions. Students could consult some of the sources cited in the book, look for updated or new ones, or sources which provide alternative analysis. They could look at the book as a container for information and think about its characteristics and value and think about the other information containers they read and use over the course of the semester.
Would this have a transferable effect on students? Would they be more likely to read and use more books? I’m not sure but maybe. Would this have a dramatic effect on print book circulation? Probably not. Do many students and faculty like the ambience created by the bookstacks? Do they contribute to creating an environment in which people feel like working? I think so. Works for me. Is that a reason to keep print books that aren’t being used in the library? It might be.
Those of us working in smaller college libraries should consider which books we want to keep, and which ones we want to purchase. We should talk about them, put them in places where students and faculty will see them, help faculty think about how books fit in their own intellectual lives and how they could in the lives of our students. As for me, I have gone back to buying a lot of books to read, to keep. I rarely print out an article anymore. What about you?