Help me save the books . . .
January 15, 2014 10:15 AM   Subscribe

I am involved in fighting a local school library that would like to go "all digital," meaning they'd like to stop purchasing physical books and magazines and rely instead entirely on Google and various databases for student research. Not just that, but the plan is eventually to get rid of the remaining books (!), so in the end there'll be nothing but computer workstations remaining. Can you help supply me with arguments why this would be a bad idea? The proponents of the measure claim that digital books offer everything that physical books do . . . only they're better! I can't help being skeptical.

I am interested if possible in cases where libraries went all or mostly digital and regretted it.

I know a lot of people would say, "Why does it have to be one or the other? Why can't it be both?" But they're mad! They're irretrievably stuck on the concept of ALL digital.

Please help, Metafilter!
posted by Opengreen to Education (31 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
For a fictional take on why this is bad, Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End perhaps provides some perspective. That might not help you immediately—just some further reading as you push against this change!
posted by limeonaire at 10:19 AM on January 15, 2014

Ask how they propose to have students do book reports.

And as a follow-up to the inevitable "they'll download the books onto their computers," ask how many take-home computers the school will have available for students who are in homes who don't have one.

And if they even come up with an answer to that, ask to see the cost analysis of buying, servicing, and maintaining those computers on an annual basis vs. just keeping the damn books.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:20 AM on January 15, 2014 [16 favorites]

What kind of school is this (high school? elementary? trade school? college?)? Is there a librarian involved? What kind of books and magazines do the students and faculty use now? Are the books they'd be replacing even AVAILABLE digitally? If they *are* available digitally, what are the licenses and usage restrictions? Is the full text of these materials available or just selections? What about images?

I'm a former librarian and generally in favor of going digital when possible, but going all-digital (especially in a K-12 school library) seems like the fever dream of some administrator who knows very little about how digital publishing works.
posted by mskyle at 10:21 AM on January 15, 2014 [11 favorites]

They need to learn the skill of finding books in a library and finding information in books because in the real world (college, business, government) this is till something that you have to do.
posted by Jahaza at 10:23 AM on January 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Start by understanding the motivator. Why do they want to do this. To save money? To be a landmark school? To earn a grant?

What problem are they trying to solve by doing this. Be open to them and think creatively about the requirements of a solution for them.
posted by jander03 at 10:24 AM on January 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Nicholson Baker wrote a book on this very issue, Double Fold.
posted by janey47 at 10:25 AM on January 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

All-digital libraries perpetuate socioeconomic inequalities, unless the library stocks enough e-readers for every patron who goes to the library to be able to take one home. And even in that scenario, what if the e-readers break? Book repair is definitely cheaper than electronics repair or replacement—unless they're planning to charge patrons for repairs? That would be horrible. But otherwise, not everyone can afford an iPad or Kindle or computer to read books on, nor even has or can afford electricity to charge such devices. Plus, not every book is available in digital form—there are many out-of-print books that remain useful or beautiful that the library probably still stocks.
posted by limeonaire at 10:25 AM on January 15, 2014 [9 favorites]

once the physical books are gone, you are at the mercy of google/amazon as to the continuing availability of the e-books.
posted by bruce at 10:28 AM on January 15, 2014 [17 favorites]

Even 16 years ago, the library at the large well-funded high school I went to got most of its use for reference materials rather than monographs. For nonfiction, at least, the monographs were often old enough to be outdated, there weren't the resources or space to have a broad collection where one might find good information on any particular subject, and circulation was low.

I would start by trying to figure out what usage statistics the library has. If the nonfiction monographs are used by very few patrons compared to other resources, maybe it is a good thing to de-emphasize dead-tree books. Maybe you could make the argument that things that are more "timeless" (like fiction) should be kept.
posted by grouse at 10:43 AM on January 15, 2014

I am involved in fighting a local school library that would like to go "all digital,"

There is a whole lot here that needs clarification in order to provide you with the best answer. As others have mentioned -- What kind of school is this (public/private/religious)? What level are the students (elementary/high school/other)?

Also -- how are you "involved?" Are you a parent? A concerned citizen? A teacher at the school?

What does "would like to" really mean? Has some board member or bigwig floated the idea? Is there a formal proposal that has been made public? Is there a committee looking into it?

Finally "all digital" is interpreted in many different ways -- no more print serials? Do they still have a book budget? Will they be maintaining the current collection for a period of time? What are the parameters?

This is not to nitpick, but libraries (especially school libraries) are complicated spaces where social, political, educational, and technological issues often came crashing together and it is very easy to miss the forest for the trees. They are also places where people with agendas will come to make a stand -- conservative parents want to get rid of books they find inappropriate, cost cutters want to cut costs, etc. Some of the Agenda People will bring serious battles you have to seriously fight; sometimes it's just people blowing smoke. It's not clear from your question which it is.

So -- yes, "going digital" on a large scale can be bad news. I'm sure you'll get lots of links to theoretical arguments and past examples.

But, if you don't know the answer to all the nitpicky questions, find them out. It will matter how you engage in this argument.

(I am a librarian. IAMNYL.)
posted by pantarei70 at 10:44 AM on January 15, 2014 [8 favorites]

Also, consider the costs of keeping current with hardware—beyond just breakage, stuff also becomes obsolete. If the software changes, will the library still be able to load ebooks onto their devices in a few years? How much will it cost if not?

And how will the checkout and check-in process be managed? Will existing staff need to be retrained (and how much will that cost, esp. for continuing education as technology changes)—or if they can't be, will they have to be let go?

As bruce mentioned, DRM is also an issue; could a publisher just yank books back out of your library's systems and devices? A library is more than just a place to get books and get online; it's a repository of information that may not be available other ways. And consider the experience of the book as art, as well as books of art—how are those experiences lost or diminished by such a change?

How are fines levied, and do you lose that as an income stream?

Oh, and children under a certain age are supposed to limit their screen time—will their parents be forced to choose between ignoring those restrictions or not introducing them to the library when they're older? And what about the case of younger kids who are being raised by their grandparents, who may not be tech-savvy when it comes to this sort of device, and many of whom might be embarrassed or simply unable to attend a class about it?
posted by limeonaire at 10:47 AM on January 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

+1 that digital materials perpetuate inequalities, as some students will have more technology training than others, depending on whether their families can provide them with tech.

Accessibility issues are also a concern--is this library fully equipped with adaptive tech for kids with disabilities that might need it? This is tricky territory, as many other kinds of disabilities benefit from technological enhancements (traditional books are difficult for some people with learning disabilities, for example).

Publishers also restrict access to many materials and that may limit the amount of information that is available. Much information has never been converted to digital, as well.

High-quality digital materials are also not less expensive than the print versions. Depending on the age of the students, the school may need database subscriptions and those are still very pricy.

Hardware becomes obsolete very, very quickly as well. This represents a growing maintenance cost.
posted by epanalepsis at 10:49 AM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is it a good quality library in its existing state? Could students do meaningful research there now? Because I've got to say that my school libraries growing up would have been no big loss. And I love books and libraries. Any research we had to do at the public library. And the nonresearch material was pretty feeble, too. I mean, I hate to send a message to kids that digital is all that's important... But what kind of resource are you looking to preserve?
posted by Kriesa at 10:52 AM on January 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

power outages, network outages, someone spills their coffee on the server...
posted by troika at 10:55 AM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh right, and music! And video! Usually those are also available in libraries. How will those be managed when you're not just checking out a box with a DVD or CD in it?
posted by limeonaire at 10:58 AM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Print books cost one amount once plus a small amount annually to repair. Digital books require annual payments (and someone with lots of technical and legal knowledge to annually review and negotiate those annual contracts). Digital is not cheaper. I am a medical librarian at a large school.
posted by holyrood at 11:16 AM on January 15, 2014 [9 favorites]

First of all, are you sure you are entirely understanding what they mean? You mention that they intend to rely on databases for research, is it possible that you are mistaking a part of the collection for the whole of the collection? I only ask because 1. the concept of an all digital library is so new that this recent one is making huge waves and 2. for school and higher education libraries, going fully digital for reference books and journals, things that wouldn't be checked out of the library anyway, is a very prudent and often financially beneficial move when you factor in the cost of subscription, on-site and off-site storage and inter-library loan reduction when database subscriptions provide more titles. Students using these materials are doing the research in the library and taking notes and making copies either way; research materials are usually in library only and the difference between reading a journal and making a copy in the library versus reading a pdf and printing a copy in the library is minor, if not favoring the second option for most young people.

If they do intend to get rid of all books, you have to remember that school libraries are a very different beast from the general concept we think of when we think of libraries. I wouldn't bother with questions of server stability; a school looking to take this on is probably already rather tech savvy, and generally ebooks, music and video are lent via a third party that the library has a contract with, and those are large vendors who have multiple back ups in case of an issue. The issues of income inequality are good to bring up, as well as the shaky relationship publishers (penguin for example) still have with the world of ebooks. You may also want to ask about circulation statistics for the circulating collection; if budget-wise they spend more money keeping the academic materials up to date and are forced to neglect the rest of the collection, it may circulate very poorly. This could be especially true if the students are provided copies of their required texts (as they are in most schools, i.e. they are tasked with plenty of non-library provided reading) and if the town or city has it's own well-regarded library system (especially if that system also has good after school programming) If the switch to digital reference and journals will save money, you could make a case for delaying the full switch while they library attempts to invest some of the savings in updating the rest of the collection, perhaps with both digital and non-digital options and seeing what the students gravitate towards.
posted by itsonreserve at 11:29 AM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

A school's library isn't just for researching assigned classwork: it's also for reading about whatever else strikes the interest of the reader (even if it's outside of the official curriculum!), as well as plain old reading-for-pleasure. Until & unless every single title currently in the library is available digitally, then going 100% digital and trashing the paper books means that any title not available digitally is lost.

Look, I have (and love!) my Kindle; I've got something like nine hundred books on the thing. But --- and it's one heck of a big 'but'! --- not all books are available digitally. Oh sure, many new books are dually published as both ebooks and as paper books, but not all of them. And, even more to the point, many older books are not ebooks. Heck, not even every book published in the last five years is available as an ebook.

I sort of understand them wanting to go "all digital": look at us, we're all modern and cutting-edge and stuff! But at the very, very least, while new acquisitions could (where possible!) be digital, somebody's going to have to go book-by-book through the paper copies, to make sure you don't lose half the library in the process.
posted by easily confused at 11:55 AM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is insane. These people are acting as if everything is available electronically, and it's simply not. Lots and lots of books, important books, are only available on paper. A friend recently asked me for recommendations for books on Russian history, and every single book I came up with was unavailable electronically. I think that's at least as important a point to make as the one about availability of computers.
posted by languagehat at 12:26 PM on January 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

Yeah...actually, the best Spanish dictionary my husband—a former college Spanish instructor and a future high-school Spanish teacher—has is a gigantic one that's long out of print. Stuff like that is incredibly valuable.
posted by limeonaire at 12:33 PM on January 15, 2014

It could be seen as an antisemitic move. Orthodox Jews cannot use electronics on the Sabbath (Friday evening until Saturday evening) and on other holidays, but they CAN read paper books. They would have 1/7 less access to the material than others who don't have that restriction.

I personally favor a hybrid approach. Art books in particular benefit from the resolution of paper.
posted by Sophont at 1:20 PM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Aside from availability and other issues mentioned already there is also evidence that reading digitized books on tablets and other digital readers negatively impacts comprehension and memorization.

"Understanding how reading on paper is different from reading on screens requires some explanation of how the brain interprets written language. We often think of reading as a cerebral activity concerned with the abstract—with thoughts and ideas, tone and themes, metaphors and motifs. As far as our brains are concerned, however, text is a tangible part of the physical world we inhabit. In fact, the brain essentially regards letters as physical objects because it does not really have another way of understanding them."

"Beyond treating individual letters as physical objects, the human brain may also perceive a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape. When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure. The exact nature of such representations remains unclear, but they are likely similar to the mental maps we create of terrain—such as mountains and trails—and of man-made physical spaces, such as apartments and offices."

"In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than onscreen text. An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains—the left and right pages—and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself. A reader can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing sight of the whole text: one can see where the book begins and ends and where one page is in relation to those borders. One can even feel the thickness of the pages read in one hand and pages to be read in the other. Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail—there's a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text."

"In contrast, most screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds. A reader of digital text might scroll through a seamless stream of words, tap forward one page at a time or use the search function to immediately locate a particular phrase—but it is difficult to see any one passage in the context of the entire text. As an analogy, imagine if Google Maps allowed people to navigate street by individual street, as well as to teleport to any specific address, but prevented them from zooming out to see a neighborhood, state or country."

posted by Hairy Lobster at 1:26 PM on January 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

Speaking as a librarian, I'm echoing the others above that are asking for more information. For instance, the academic library I work at is moving a large number of books offsite because we need more physical space for students to come in and work. And one of our criteria for books that are moving is that they haven't been checked out in 10 years. And we're working with faculty to ID books that are important and which should stay even though they haven't been checked out, and we have implemented mechanics to move books from offsite back to campus if they're requested.

All that and we STILL hear rumors that "they're getting rid of all the books!!!"

So, I can't give you advice on how to convince people that books should stay in the library--and I advise others that they should not give advice just yet--without actually knowing the facts of the case, and I suspect you could have received a biased version of what's really going on. If you have links to more information about this case, you'd get much better advice.
posted by telophase at 2:08 PM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

For beginning readers -- ages 4 through 7 -- paper is just about the only thing that makes sense.

--Most books for young children are not available in digital form.

--Young children do not understand technology well enough; it is a myth that children understand technology better than their parents.

--Young children have more accidents and breakage with computers and e-readers.
posted by Mo Nickels at 2:52 PM on January 15, 2014

Can you achieve a compromise? Ask to have one segment of the library go digital as a test case? Could you propose maybe science which changes rapidly and would benefit from easy updating? The results of a go-slow program would add light and subtract heat from the discussions.
posted by Cranberry at 4:02 PM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Unless this is a very small school, there's no way in hell they'll be able to provide enough workstations to accommodate the entire student body's total scholastic needs. What do students do if all the workstations are full when they have a chance to use the library? Just- not study? What if they don't have time to go to the library and want resources to take home? What if the information they need is behind a paywall?
posted by windykites at 6:08 PM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also a librarian. Not at a school, but have worked a lot with ebooks. Endorse many of the questions brought up - a lot depends on making sure you have an accurate picture of what's going on. If there is still a school librarian, they would be a good place to start with getting accurate information. There may be other people who are also concerned and doing something. Probably a good idea to suss that out.

If it does turn out to be all kinds of books, not a scrap of paper left in the place - and in fact no place at all - here are some other things:
- library as not just an information repository, but a physical space where people can research, collaborate, create etc together
- inequity of access as mentioned above (financial etc) (mentioned above but really important!)
- time delay - often ebook publication is delayed for months after the print publication
- availability of ebook editions - not just for older material as mentioned above, but current material. This may also be affected by where you and the school are located. In Australia, for example, ebook publishing is way behind print publication in terms of percentage of titles available electronically. One of the main publishers producing ebooks announced a couple of months ago that they are stopping and have withdrawn all the ebooks they already published, no longer available. (Fortunately if you already had purchased them they didn't take them back, but that's theoretically a possibility.)
- increased need for tech support for upgrades/troubleshooting etc = increased costs (and yes, ebooks are very definitely not cheaper than paper in many cases).

Hybrid model for digital content is a more reasonable approach.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:24 PM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's not good to stare at screens all day -- eye strain ensues.
posted by ravioli at 8:29 PM on January 15, 2014

In regards to accessibility, I would like to point out that this is not an academic issue. The Free Library of Philadelphia was sued for lending out Nooks, which were completely inaccessible to the blind, and the Sacramento Public Library was also. So if the library decides to pursue this, they will need to be very very careful to check the accesibility features of whichever device(s) they will be offering instead of books. And not offering devices would be tantamount to saying that the needs of poorer students don't matter.

It's also worth noting that if all books are removed in favor of ebooks and online resources, the fundamental math of availability changes: if you don't have a handheld or a computer, and all copies of the book you want are checked out, the rest of the books are still there. If you don't have a handheld or a computer and all the devices are checked out, the entire library is not there.

The cost of eBooks is very different from the cost of print books. Publishers are still enforcing the "one book, one patron" model, but some publishers price eBooks much higher for libraries than for the public (though others do offer their eBooks at reasonable prices), and some publishers also use a model where eBooks have to be repurchased after a certain number of checkouts or a certain amount of time (in some cases, whichever comes first). You might be interested in this brief interview.

And finally, depending on which vendor you go with, you might be changing the basic nature of the library's relationship to their books. Libraries own their print books and have first-sale rights, but if you sign on with OverDrive (currently the most popular provider of eBooks to libraries) you are not buying the titles, you are simply paying for access to them, and if/when you decide not to renew the contract, all those titles are no longer available. 3M and Baker and Taylor both claim that you do own your eBooks, but if you decide to sign on with them, there's still the (considerable) hurdle of getting those eBooks off their service and onto a new platform.
posted by johnofjack at 7:45 AM on January 16, 2014

I would like to offer one anecdote as counterpoint to the standard digital divide argument. I am talking about only one family. I presently tutor two elementary-aged kids from a middle-class home in the Bronx. One parent is from the Caribbean, the other from Latin America. Both parents work long hours, but the family has a car and several computers. There are very few paper books in the house. In conversation, the parents have indicated that if ebooks are the way of the future, anyway, then why not spend their limited resources on something the kids might even glance at someday? They are aware of the huge number of cheap paperbacks online, as well as at Goodwill, but it is just not where their head is at. It would be an overstatement to say that books are regarded as an effete luxury item, but it is pretty wild for me to see multiple laptops and almost no books.

The kids have a school-issue kids' dictionary that they are now outgrowing, as well as a grocery store paperback dictionary. Someone passed me a very nice illustrated dictionary, which I then brought over to them. Leaving out my own ego, the kids were 100% uninterested in a large illustrated volume and went back to the grocery store version. (They are too young to reliably use the internet for, say, their vocabulary words.) Not one word of "whoa" passed their lips. This was a non-item.

n=1. But if it were me, I would be arguing that every kid deserves to be surrounded by paper books. Sure, it's classist, fueled by 100 assumptions about what I personally value, but I think a kid who reads off PDFs is missing out. It may not be true in 50 or even 25 years, but yes, as of today, they're missing out.

I would feel differently if these students of mine READ their ebooks. They don't, unfortunately. Too much distraction from games, etc.
posted by skbw at 5:03 PM on January 18, 2014

A nice soundbite with some stats to show that ebook use is increasing, but print is still most popular. May be helpful for convincing people at your local library, and of interest for others in this thread. I myself am one of these hybrid people, having finished an ebook on my ereader and started a paperback next.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:09 PM on January 19, 2014

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