#18: Digitize Academic Libraries

The largest building on most great research university campuses is the main library, for no other reason than the warehousing of millions of books takes up enormous amounts of space. Aside from books, libraries spend vast amounts subscribing to thousands of academic journals (usually at a subscription price of several hundred dollars annually). Many books are read or even looked at only rarely, and it is hard to justify their purchase on any cost-benefit basis. The capital costs of library buildings are likewise immense.

The revolution in information technology should radically revise the concept of the university library. The electronic purchase of books should substitute for traditional acquisition of hard copies. Consortia of universities can band together to reduce costs. Organizations like OhioLink are state-wide networks of libraries that in effect create a single library to serve vast numbers of students.

By far, however, the greatest promise comes from digitization of books and periodicals. The rise in the cost of academic journal subscriptions has been the leading cost driver for university libraries. As a result, the end of paper academic journals may be near as libraries seek cheaper electronic alternatives. For years, institutions like JSTOR have permitted scholars to access vast amounts of materials in scholarly journals from their office. The most interesting elaboration of this concept is the Google Library Book Project, a vast effort to digitize almost all major printed works, including the collections of such premier libraries as the New York Public Library, Harvard University, the University of Michigan, and Stanford.

To be sure, there are many issues involved. There is, of course, the issue of intellectual property rights. A physical library may well still be a good place for students to gather to study, to work on computers, and occasionally to use printed works. Most university and college libraries have undergone vast physical changes to accommodate the changes in technology. In the long run, however, does every campus need to have a physical repository of printed volumes? Cannot virtually all of the research and teaching functions be done electronically?  This does not mean a complete elimination of libraries, perhaps, but changes their nature and downsizes their physical presence.

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