Librarians: Many faculty members embrace digitization


Librarians remind students that some valuable literature isn't yet avaiable online.
Librarians remind students that some valuable literature isn't yet available online.

The sentimentality that college faculty members have for the old-fashioned campus library isn’t the norm at some institutions with vast digital libraries, higher-education librarians and technologists say—countering recent research that lists faculty resistance as a roadblock in digitizing library collections.

Research that refers to the “wistfulness” for the days of wooden bookshelves and massive piles of literary works was released June 2 by the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Library and Information Resources, a nonprofit group that advocates for greater access to information.

The study, titled “The Idea of Order: Transforming Research Collections for 21st Century Scholarship,” charges that entrenched professors and staff members have slowed the creation of digitized book collections. The study also cites the conflicting ideas about whether information should be commodified or made freely available online as a persistent impediment to library digitization.

Roger Layton, communication manager for Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library, said most professors accept students’ research findings from the school’s collection of 162,000 items scanned into a digital repository, which includes books, thesis dissertations, and pieces of art, among other content.

“There are certainly some [faculty] who assign students to find print versions of books,” he said, adding that BYU’s Digital Collections web page received 20 million hits last year. “But, by and large, the digital versions have been embraced by faculty. … I don’t see them dragging their feet on it, because they want anything to streamline the process for students” searching for research material.

Clearing the mounds of books that once took up entire floors of BYU’s library, Layton said, has made room for student study areas—a move many professors encouraged.

“There’s very little hesitation from many [faculty] to move toward the online model,” he said. “That is the direction things are going.”

Professors accept electronic sources for homework and research projects, but many faculty members have become wary of sources found through a simplistic Google search, said Leslie Haas, director of Loyola University Chicago’s Richard J. Klarcheck Information Commons, where students go to study and relax using a range of technologies.

“What I see more and more is faculty noticing that students don’t always evaluate things they find online,” she said. “They tend to take things at face value. … But I think the faculty, as long as it’s coming from a scholarly source, they haven’t indicated a preference of paper over electronic.”

The Council on Library and Information Resources’ research included the results of a search for usable digitized books by Melissa Baralt, a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

In the summer of 2008, Baralt conducted online searches for 61 digitized copies of books about the history of language and linguistics published between 1533 and 2007.

Baralt found 72 percent of the books in digital form, but not all of them were of high quality, according to the research. Many of the books published before 1924 had “two or more unintelligible pages” or were unsearchable because of complications with English characters.

Most of the books published from 1972 to 2007 that Baralt found were digitized in some form but only had “20-percent preview chunks” available to readers. And in some languages, such as Tibetan, Baralt couldn’t “enable her computer to generate Tibetan characters to attempt to conduct a search.”

Haas said that while opening a web page is usually college students’ first step in researching a topic, taking the time to peruse the bookshelves can add depth to research that might not be available online.

“I remind them that there is a lot of information out there that may never make it online,” Haas said. “They need to be aware of that.”

To remind students that the old hardbound book could be as useful as the most advanced web-based repository, Loyola University library officials deliver books to students who request them.

The students put in a request online, show up at the library, and a library employee at the circulation desk hands them their book. The library needs one business day to fill each request, according to the university’s web site.

“We know that when students find out something is in print only, they want the convenience of having it at their fingertips,” Haas said. “They might disregard a good source in print if they have to get up and go get it, versus having something right there on their computer screen.”

While relatively few faculty members shun higher education’s shift toward book digitization, college and university library officials said there remains an underlying longing for the old-fashioned campus library.

“There is a huge nostalgia for that feeling of the old English library,” Layton from BYU said. “But our library—and most modern libraries—are all glass and metal. There’s no fireplace; let’s put it that way.”

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