Briefly Noted: An Uptick in Digital Books and a Downtick in Hardcopy

Alisha Avezedo’s recent article, “Research Libraries Increase Spending on Digital Materials” makes me sad, although there is an upside to the fact that libraries are devoting ever-increasing amounts of money to digital material, which most likely means that they will be devoting smaller amounts of the budget to hard copies.[1]

According to Avezedo, “spending by research libraries appears to be rising, especially for digital materials, according to new data from the Association of Research Libraries.” As with other economic indicators, this trend follows with the slow uptick in the economy following the sharp downtick in 2008. “The upward trend for the 2011 fiscal year was the first in several years. The economic downturn in 2008 and tight budgets that followed caused a drop in spending on all of the index’s categories . . .” Those categories include total library expenditures, salaries and wages for staff, staff support, and acquisitions. Digital materials acquisitions are driving the bulk of the increase in spending.

The Ivy League schools spend the most (no surprise there). “Harvard University,” writes Avezedi, “remains the clear leader in the index, outspending the runner-up, Yale University, by more than $36 million.” Harvard’s increase was largely in staff, yet this is not only a manpower need. Avezedo notes, “librarians agreed that an increased demand from students and professors for digital materials has affected staffing needs and budget planning.” For instance, Cornell University has allocated over 60 percent of its library materials budget towards e-content.

As such, the trend toward the digital in all types of information seems to be impacting the way universities hire and place personnel. How this impacts the student and faculty service for libraries or the teaching and learning outcomes for the same is yet to be seen. What is clear is that the internet is changing the way we learn and access the material that help us learn.

By way of response, I’ll offer only a few thoughts: First, there is a downside to trend toward digital content. We lose the “earthiness” of a good hard copy book. We lose the nice space it occupies on the shelf (which makes a statement about what we find important to read); we lose the smell and the feel of a well-bound and paginated monograph (a better scent, to be sure, than the cheap plastic of an e-reader); and we lose the ability to mark the book and annotate the book with a pencil or pen. Second there is also an upside to this trend: published material can be made available to anybody on the globe who has a computer or e-reader of some sort; perhaps this published material will continue to cost less than hard copies; and one can take a flight to Asia or Africa without having to stuff 6-8 books in one’s back pack. There’s a lot more to be said on this topic, but my coffee’s just finished brewing, and I’m about to open a newly purchased hardback edition of Barth’s Dogmatics, which I will read and then annotate sparingly but surely with my pencil (0.5 mm) while I enjoy the feel of a newly minted hardback. So there. Take that.


[1] Alisha Avezedo, “Research Libraries Increase Spending on Digital Materials,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct. 12, 2012), A22.

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  1. Dougald   •  

    As someone who works in a library I’ll add a few comments for you to respond to. This comes from my own experience and some reading that if I could find it I would post a link to it here.

    1) I believe that Lifeway did some research a little while ago that found while digital book were on the uptick for individual customers the types of books they were buying were mostly fiction (I do not remember the parameters of the research, it was seen in passing). The scholarly stuff was left to the hardback. How should libraries view this research? And, how should this inform their buying?

    2) I have found a good number of people who can scan/download articles still print them out when they get home, or from the computers in our library. So while they may keep them stored digitally they still prefer having the print-out.

    3) Reference works are where most of the patrons I run into like digital. For example: If I am wanting to do research on a topic I don’t know anything about and I want to use the Anchor Bible Dictionary to get an overview I am more likely to prefer a digital copy. The books however, I may prefer in hardback. This is why we recently purchased Credo Reference at the library. It is a collection of scholarly dictionaries and other reference works. It may have a Wikipedia feel, but the students are actually reading respected works.

    4) Finally, there is no scientific data for this, I randomly ask patrons in the library. When someone prefers a digital copy I sometimes ask, “How do you annotate it?” Their general response is, “I don’t write in books.” For those of us who do, we prefer the hard copy over any type of program that allows annotation of PDFs (e.g. Good Reader on the Ipad) or plain digital copies.

    Does Avezedo’s research show what types of materials libraries are buying? I must have missed this issue of the Chronicle so I will dig it up and check it out upon my return.

    Finally, thank you for posting this and for your responses. I also prefer hardback.

  2. Adam Shields   •  

    I understand that many people that like to read also are nostalgic for the book itself, but storage of books is a major costs of those books. The last time I moved I gave away almost all of my books. And I still give away almost all of my paper books because they do no one any good on a shelf in my house taking up space. So instead of a large library I have a kindle and a very small library and access to significantly more books.

    Digital copies allow for different types of research that are just not possible in physical books. We are seeing some interesting results of that research and will continue to see more all the time.

    But Cornell isn’t increasing their digital spending budget because of the lower cost, but because that is the format that is being requested by the students and factuality.

  3. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Dougald, great questions. Here are my initial thoughts in response:
    1. I still think libraries want to digitize some non-fiction in order to have it stored digitally, and possibly to offer it for distance-learners globally who don’t live near the library.
    2. I’m one of those people.
    3. Agreed.
    4. Yep.
    5. Avezedo’s research was limited.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Adam, thank you for the input. I agree with your points. But I still have a hard time reading screens. Hate it actually.

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