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.