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Mugar on a Microchip?

As libraries go digital, are books becoming obsolete?


After the Dewey decimal system, the books-to-bytes formula may be the most important set of numbers for modern libraries. The rule of thumb, according to University librarian Robert Hudson, is that every 10 tomes transferred from print to digitization frees up one square foot of shelf space. At that rate, the Internet Age has been the bibliophile’s equivalent of urban renewal at BU.

Mugar Memorial Library has cleared out 200,000 books in recent years and warehoused them off site, gaining 20,000 square feet. (Some are still not digitized and can be overnighted to campus for a borrower, Hudson says.) Mugar has access to 230,000 more books that can be read online, saving another 25,000 square feet. A similar dynamic has cleared away printed scholarly journals, 16,000 of which filled Mugar when Hudson came to BU during the Carter administration. Today, “we have 46,000 electronic journals and only 4,000 in paper,” he says. (The library’s seven floors hold a total of 2.2 million books, journals, and microforms.)

The recent announcement that the Encyclopedia Britannica is eliminating its 244-year-old print edition for an online-only version frazzled traditionalists fearing the extinction of the book. But while all BU libraries, from Mugar to the three Hudson doesn’t oversee (at the Schools of Medicine, Law, and Theology), are traveling the digital route, their librarians insist that all books won’t shrink to fit on a microchip, at least in the lifetime of most of us.

For one thing, there are some things that only masochists might peruse on computer. “The primary title on copyright law is 11 large volumes,” says Marlene Alderman, director of LAW’s Pappas Law Library and an associate professor of law. “Does everyone want to read that digitally?” Amy Limpitlaw, head librarian at the STH library, says one professor at the school recently confided that in general she prefers reading print to online. Copyright law also is helping preserve the printed word, Limpitlaw says: it mandates the permission of a copyright holder before any book published after 1923 can be digitized, so that “much of our collection is not eligible to be converted to digital format even if we wanted to.” Many theology books remain print-only, or if they are e-books, may be available only by subscription and aren’t for sale to libraries, she says.

In a recent ode to the e-book, New York Times blogger Timothy Egan cited a report showing that e-book readers also enjoy a dip into print books now and then. Meanwhile, libraries still need space, even if it’s not for books. During the decades when Mugar acquired books only, Hudson says, “what we had been doing is building more book stacks and taking away seating.” Digitization reversed that, allowing “us to take some of the stacks down and start rebuilding student use space—computers, but also carrels, group interactive spaces, classrooms.” In short, “we’re more than books” and need student work space.

Boston University Engineering ENG library

Fewer bookshelves means more student study space. Photo by Vernon Doucette

“You live in Warren Towers, there’s noise, roommates, things like that,” all of which distract a would-be studier, Hudson says.

On balance, librarians give thumbs-up to the online migration of matter. “What’s not to love?” says Alderman, whose library has removed 25,000 volumes from its shelves. “Digital materials can be accessed wherever the researcher chooses to work, eliminating a trip to the library and the need to carry around heavy law books.” Pappas was out of shelf space, she says, so the cavalry of digitization rode to the rescue, freeing up room for either as-yet-undigitized print material or specialty collections from elsewhere at LAW.

MED’s Alumni Medical Library has put all but 20 scholarly journals online in the last four years and is buying electronic journal archives and expanding its e-book holdings, according to director Mary Blanchard. As at Mugar, student study and learning space has commensurately blossomed. “Our e-resources are licensed for remote access 24/7,” she says—crucial support for students completing off-campus clinical training and other studies.

STH’s library is looking to hire a digital projects manager to help plan which material to keep online, according to Limpitlaw. (The library previously digitized 1,000 or more rare books and material from its locked research collection, but those books remain in the library, she says.)

BU’s and other libraries aren’t driving the move to digitization. “In a lot of cases, the journals faculty are publishing in now are only digital,” says Hudson. BU subscribes to JSTOR, a nonprofit digital archive of scholarly journals, allowing the University to warehouse paper copies of journals off campus. But this brave new world raises new questions, such as who owns digital articles and books; Hudson says he advises faculty to retain copyright to their papers rather than cede them to the publisher.

Then there is the tendency of computers to obsolesce quickly. “In my desk, I’ve got floppy disks with budgets and memos that can’t be read anymore,” from 10 years back, Hudson says, “either because they’ve deteriorated or the machine that read them isn’t around or the program that could read them has been updated. I think it’s a very real problem.”

By contrast, he says, “the book’s been here 500 years, so it’s not going anywhere.”

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

5 Comments on Mugar on a Microchip?

  • Craig Balaun on 05.04.2012 at 10:15 am

    The wonder of the digital age is the ability to transcend the boundaries of confinement that many of our scholarly works have traditionally been relegated. The Web opens up the possibilities for bold new frontiers of scholarship, helping us to see the connections between seemingly disparate disciplines, investigations, and relationships; curator of a more inclusive narrative of archives than has ever been possible in society. The consequences are enormous.

    The role and the purpose of the library are far from diminished. On the contrary, its role is enhanced, its purpose made ever more relevant.

    As the Web continues to define and carve out public space, as it redefines access, our libraries will continue to be the codex and the scroll by which we navigate and document an increasingly complex and interdisciplinary world that seeks to include all the voices and all the ideas that define who we were, who we are, and where we go from here.

  • Tom on 05.04.2012 at 11:11 am

    As a computer scientist I have to point out that Hudson’s concerns at the end of the article about computers becoming obsolete quickly aren’t very relevant to this situation. The computer itself hasn’t become obsolete, and I doubt it ever will. Certain computer technologies, such as floppy disks and zip disks have and that will continue to happen. CDs and DVDs have already become obsolete even if some people haven’t realized it yet. The difference is that you don’t maintain a digital library the same way you maintain old budgets and memos, on a floppy disk in a desk drawer. You keep it on one or more servers that are backed up regularly with sufficient redundancy. As long as the server can connect to a network it can be accessed. It’s actually a safer way of storing books than in print form, especially for old or rare books. As the article says, I think the best idea is a balance of print and digital. Both have advantages and there’s no reason not to have both.

  • Joseph Rodriguez on 05.04.2012 at 12:41 pm

    Not to be a “THAT GUY” but doesn’t it concern anyone that the centralization of books means things like not yet imagined future censorship could easily make sweeping changes to books? A text is deemed politically or culturally wrong and then just disappears or is legislated away?
    Then there’s this, what about a computer virus or mass unforseen failure of storage systems?
    Sounds paranoid, but I am a Database Administrator working on my MSCIS in I.T. Security and I know enough about computers and human history to understand large, unforseen political upheavals and large-scale technology failure.
    I like the digital idea but I can’t shake some serious reservations.

    • Nathan on 05.07.2012 at 2:58 pm

      “Text conveniently disappears” is not a valid concern: there are too many legal and illegal archives, diverse governments and wayback machines for someone to rewrite the ending of George Orwell’s 1984.

      As for a large scale technology failure: having been employed in corporate computer technology and owned a personal computer for over 30 years, I am not interested in living in a post-apocolyptic world where technology fails back to the victorian era or before. If such a fate dooms the world, the struggle to survive will outweigh any concerns about the fate of digital libraries.

  • Halima N. on 05.08.2012 at 12:08 pm

    It would be great, generouse one if BU put all library of Professor Richard Frye on the web. I am waiting for it. Thanks a lot BU.
    The best idea is a balance of print and digital. Both have advantages and there’s no reason not to have both, as wrote Tom.

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