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Seas of Change: Libraries in a Digital Age

April 2010

Donald H. Dyal
Dean, Texas Tech Libraries

Thousands of books, essays, and articles engage concrete issues: wars, politics, presidential succession, dates, people, events, places. However, writings that deal with how something occurred or why it occurred are rarer. Rarer still are books delving into the history of social changes.

Few inventions have had a greater impact on people living in the southern United States than refrigeration and air conditioning. In many ways, these twin inventions created the New South. Yet, who can recall reading a history of air conditioning in the South – or even a history of air conditioning anywhere for that matter? Clearly, such treatises exist, but patrons consult them infrequently. As someone once suggested: Technology is the often-neglected insight into historical and societal change.

Change and the adoption and adaptation to new technology can be both disruptive and emotional. When individuals have mastered a complex set of skills in a technology, these individuals can be emotionally challenged with the thought of discarding an older and familiar technology for the newer and unfamiliar. Clear superiority will win many adherents to a new technology, but for some the new technology creates disruption and emotional distress. It is an old and oft-repeated story.

Library stacks

In the multi-millennial history of commercial sailing vessels, for example, the most controversial and perhaps interesting period is the span 1870-1920, when maritime transport underwent enormous change. This half-century witnessed commercial sail fall from pre-eminence on most of the world’s trade routes to virtual non-existence. In 1870, powered shipping was in the ascendancy, but sail still owned the tonnage. Sail held on because of a complicated set of economic factors and the enduring power and emotional strength of an equally enduring way of life. After years of arduous work to acquire the skills necessary to command in commercial sail, many practitioners of sail were slow to accept the realization that such skills were no longer necessary – in fact, the skills became irrelevant in the face of new steam technology. There was disbelief among many that sail would/could disappear. This cultural lag, an inability to see and come to terms with a new reality, as the late William Fielding Ogburn stated it, exists any time a dynamic change occurs in the way we exploit our resources through technology. The lag – or its effects – can be particularly virulent if the change is sufficiently disruptive, that a life-way abruptly ceases (with its accompanying skills) and is replaced by a much less rigorous skill set, or a set of skills in which there is little transfer from the old technology. In 1870, a ship figurehead carver located in Bath, Maine, had backlogs of work. Twenty years later he was completely out of work.

In contemporary literature of 1870-1920, many hardcore sailors looked down on steam sailors as less skilled or less proven. While such observations may have been the case from a particular point of view, they also missed the point. One technology displaced another and the partisans in the struggle were not always aware of the displacement. Many sailing sailors willfully jumped ship for a berth in steam. Others, however, were reluctant to leave behind the emotional, skill, and time investments in sail. Cloaked in phrases like "continuity" and "integrity" – by which some may have meant hard-won stability and soundness or even honesty – these conservatives attacked changes that threatened their world.

Risk-takers are not comfortable with stability and continuity; they espouse a different vocabulary. Interestingly, inventors and other revolutionaries rarely use such vocabulary as stability or continuity. They often seek disruption or at least change. I am not sneering at such attitudes or vocabulary – merely trying to shine a weak-battery flashlight on them. Many of us cherish our continuities and integrity and perhaps rightfully so. However, when real change is here, the adaptation/adoption can be wrenching for many. Such was the case when steam displaced sail. Such is also the case now when digital technologies have largely replaced paper and print.

While most adapt to a new technology rapidly, a minority shakes its head in disbelief, unwilling to acknowledge that real change has arrived. They want the technology with which they are most comfortable to persist, regardless of the fact that the new technology is more robust, more flexible, and more user-friendly than the old. Few have had a harder time with the change than the professionals who work most acquiring it, managing it, developing it – our archivists and librarians. Perhaps there is no other entity on academic campuses that has undergone more change and more rapid change than has the university library – and it is not over yet.

Libraries and Change.

Change? Don’t libraries do the same things they have always done?

Yes, the enduring missions of libraries continue:

The above-mentioned missions have not changed at all in the last 5,000 years.

So what exactly has changed? – you ask. The manner in which individuals accomplish these activities has changed, and changed dramatically. Let your retinas scan a few startling bits of data from TTU Libraries:

The digital revolution has already occurred. Alumni celebrating a 10th anniversary on campus do not recognize the Texas Tech University Library.

How does one manage change in such a revolution? It is not easy. It is not straightforward. However, there are three signposts that give direction and help.

Signpost One: If it is not online, it does not exist.

In 2001, 400,000 to 500,000 books were circulated but by 2009 with the increase in electronic assets, book circulation had dropped to fewer than 129,000.

In 2001, 400,000 to 500,000 books were circulated but by 2009 with the increase in electronic assets, book circulation had dropped to fewer than 129,000.

Categorically that statement is not true – but it feels as if it is true.

In the last scene of the hit 1985 movie, "Back to the Future," Dr. Emmett Brown returns from a trip to the future in his stainless-steel-bodied DeLorean automobile. Concerned about Marty McFly’s kids, Doc insists that Marty accompany him back to the future. Brown throws some garbage into his Mr. Fusion nuclear reactor, Marty jumps into the DeLorean, and Doc Brown points the car down Marty’s short residential street.

"Hey, Doc! We better back up, we don’t have enough road to get up to 88 [mph]."

Doc lowers his mirror-finish futuristic shades and replies, "Road? Where we’re going we don’t need roads."

In this succinct statement, Doc Brown identified the essence of what technology does for us all – it changes our perceptions of what is possible. Technology opens the windows of the mind allowing the breeze to blow through.

Distance education would be much more difficult, particularly graduate distance education, without the digital revolution. Imagine having to mail hundreds of articles and books to wherever, so that students could accomplish course work or research. Much of distance education depends on a digital library.

Routinely, TTU Libraries receive requests for materials which we already possess – but the request is for the same materials in a digital format. Researchers who have been working with digital materials loathe returning to paper – it’s just that simple. Digital makes research faster, easier to manipulate and edit, easier to store, retrieve and submit – it is just easier all the way around. In addition, the amount of digital content now available gives one an aggravated case of the staggers. Digital content is ubiquitous, and in fact, now governs as a business model for those who want to be recognized for their research.

For example, much of the research of astronomy is done online. Images captured by various types of technologies are routinely loaded onto interactive astronomy web sites where they are manipulated and further developed – the end product being far greater than the sum of its parts. Astronomy journals, in the traditional sense, are vanishing (National Virtual Observatory and the Association of Research Libraries Web sites). The leading edge of research is all online.

The Virginia Center for Digital History and its unique Geography of Slavery pages suggest that granting agencies and historians recognize the value and validity of extending digital technology (Virginia Center for Digital History Web site). Digital History, a site developed and launched at the University of Nebraska Lincoln approaches the digital issue in a different but equally compelling manner (Digital History University of Nebraska Lincoln Web site).

Research laboratory blogs report out initial or tentative results almost instantly and many fields are deliberately moving into an online environment to manage timeliness and responsiveness.

TTU Libraries acquired the most sophisticated human anatomy models available – all digital – and minus the smell of preservatives and other noxious potions.

Engineers conceived, developed and tested NASA’s Mars rover digitally with an animated model before anything was ever actually built. The 3-D and animation laboratory in the TTU Libraries has as one of its missions the opportunity to create new forms of engineering, new forms of teaching, and new forms of visualizing for research.

In 2009, the Texas Legislature created a digital repository for the express purpose of ingesting K-12 digital textbooks to be used in classrooms across the state. These students will quickly become totally fluent in digital technologies. In a few short years, students from that digital environment will matriculate to colleges and universities looking for that which is familiar to them – digital content. We cannot defend the past; we must plan for the future.

What is true today for researchers and pedagogues will be different tomorrow in terms of how researchers develop scholarly communication models, teaching, and research practices.

Signpost Two: It’s all about convenience.

Library stacks

Tim Barton, the head of Oxford University Press USA, discussed his views in The Chronicle of Higher Education beginning with an anecdote: while grading an essay assignment, a professor at Columbia found that most of the class cited a work that had been published in 1900, which had largely been forgotten since. Why so many citations? Because it was online and more recent work isn't. It is the principle of least effort, what is most convenient, that governs most usage.

Barton went on to observe that if a relevant academic publication is effectively invisible to the Oxford University Press target audience, then the press is not succeeding as a publisher. And Barton has a very simple definition of invisible: "what once seemed at least debatable has now become irrefutable: if it's not online, it's invisible" (Barton 2009).

TTU Libraries’ experience corroborates Barton’s observations. While use of print journals and print books is plummeting, the curve on increased usage of digital content is so steep that it gives viewers a nosebleed. Students and researchers choose to work in the most convenient format – and today that means digital. This signpost’s supports are not merely anecdotal; two recent authors concluded that information searchers always chose the easiest, most convenient, most accessible information first (Liu and Yang, 2004).

Signpost Three: We plan for the future; we don’t defend the past.

Daniel Boorstin's book, The Discoverers, is a trove of quirky stories and details. At one point he tells the story of Cheng Ho, the great fifteenth-century Chinese explorer who sailed down the east coast of Africa when that area was still unknown to the rest of the world (except, of course to the Africans who lived there). After several triumphant navigational feats, Cheng Ho returned home in 1433 to find that the emperor had forbidden any further foreign travel. Since China was the perfect center of the universe, its leaders had decided that there was no need to confront other lands and cultures.

The Chinese, complacently convinced that they needed nothing from outside, instituted "The Great Withdrawal" from the rest of the planet and from their fellow human beings. They could do very well without cares, interests or curiosity, thank you very much.

So the great names in the history of exploration belong to Scandinavians, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, or Italians. No one followed Cheng Ho to build on the knowledge he had gained, and the Chinese stopped building ocean-going ships. The great enemy of learning and discovery has always been not so much ignorance as a lack of curiosity. Boorstin explains the motivation of all great discoverers is the "need to know – to know what is out there" (Boorstin 1983, 16). Implicit in the psyche of all discoverers is deeply-rooted curiosity. Interestingly, the root of the word curious means "to care." To care means, among other things, to engage the past, the present, and the future. While the past always informs the present, history often does not inform the future. In TTU Libraries, it has become agonizingly true that to plan for the future saves money and effort and expands possibilities; to defend the past often does none of those.

Now about this point in the discussion, there is a level of discomfort among some of us because we have treasured beliefs about the past and present – and the future, if it is primarily to be in digital form, looks uncomfortable to us. Those of us who are skilled sailors in the paper world feel uneasy about both the digital present and prognostications of a largely digital future. We have questions, and they are important questions. So let me try to answer some of them.

Question: So if the future is digital, what will happen to all of the amazing information and treasure that heretofore has not been digitized? A great question. I do not feel comfortable jettisoning the physical books just because a bunch of people – or even most people – prefer to utilize the superior digital formats.

Personally, I collect books – my training is in rare book librarianship and archival management – that is what I did for more than 30 years prior to coming to TTU. I am the last one to argue that we pitch the past into the dumpster or that books are irrelevant.  I am not advocating the loss of physical objects and nowhere in my short article is anything remotely approaching such a view entertained. We will continue to perform that mission. However, I am also not blind; nor can I ignore what is happening all around me. The change in usage is obvious even to a blind man sitting in the middle of Highway 84 with a Hefty trash bag over his head.  People are not checking out books. Electronic versions of the Times best sellers out-sell the physical book by as much as three times in many cases. People use our digital content 10 times more than our paper content. That is my point, and my only point. The revolution is already here. However, we will continue to buy books and we will continue to house and care for the physical materials we possess. The danger on the horizon may be that someday, for fiscal and cultural reasons, the decision may be made for us rather than by us. Librarians and archivists do not control fiscal nor cultural events – and you probably do not either.

The advent of electronic resources does not mean that visits to the library are down. In 2001, walk-ins to the building totaled about 700,000. In 2009, the number of walk-ins reached 3.4 million.

The advent of electronic resources does not mean that visits to the library are down. In 2001, walk-ins to the building totaled about 700,000. In 2009, the number of walk-ins reached 3.4 million.

Question: But what about the survivability of digital content? Isn’t it notoriously fragile and prone to loss?

Another great question. TTU Libraries spends many, many thousands of dollars of operational funds annually to backup and create redundancies for its digital content. It is about as secure as it can be. Is it perfect? – no, but neither is the security of the physical materials we possess. There is a myth floating around that a physical book or a piece of paper has greater survivability than its digital counterpart. The putative survivability of physical objects is questionable, at best. Most of the 15th century books that we have today survived because they were locked away in monasteries or baronial establishments where they were read not at all, or only infrequently – and where war and destruction did not intervene. The vast majority of materials from that era have not survived. From previous eras, the record is worse – much worse. The greatest library of history, the Alexandrian, survives only in collective memory. Of the other great libraries of millennial antiquity, none survive. Interestingly, in the last 15 years, there have been more than a dozen cataclysmic disasters in large university libraries in the United States – University of New Mexico, Colorado State University, University of Colorado, University of Hawaii, etc., have all had substantial portions of their collections damaged or destroyed outright by fires, floods, or by the sprinkler systems that law requires libraries to install. In every case, the majority of the paper collections were lost irretrievably. They could not be replaced either because there was no money or they were unobtainable, or both. Interestingly, the digital materials lost could be up and running again almost overnight – either by replacement from backups or from another source. These circumstances ask the question:  which is the truly survivable medium – physical or digital? 

It is important that we understand what drives and has driven technological change in the information world since the invention of writing. Two things seem to lead the way: cost and convenience. Clay tablets are cheaper and last longer than paper. So why don’t we use them? Convenience. Instead of carrying around a briefcase or backpack, who would want to have to use wheelbarrows or even pickup trucks to tote hundreds of pounds of clay tablets necessary just to make up one book? Parchment gave way to paper because a parchment book often required the lives of hundreds of animals – no one (except the church) could afford such books. Printed books, when introduced in the fifteenth century, were initially shunned by the church as cheap imitations of real books – i.e., manuscript parchment books – and that was exactly the point. The inexpensive paper book enabled an information revolution that helped to spawn and to grow universities and made learning available to many for whom it was previously unavailable. The same engines are driving change today. What is behind the digital revolution? It is cheapness and it is convenience – the two of which will trump everything else, every time. That is why if it is not online, it does not exist. That is why it is all about convenience. And therefore, that is why we plan for the future; we do not defend the past.

In conclusion, one only needs to look at the endnotes of this brief article to note that all of the resources are readily available from the desktop except the Boorstin book, which does not (yet) have an accessible digital version. As a graduate student decades ago, looking up footnotes took hours of painstaking and energetic labor. Now, footnotes can be accessed literally in seconds, if they are digital. If you could/would look up the endnotes, would you actually bother to come to the library to find Daniel Boorstin’s book to check page 16 – or would that be the one that is left out? It really is about convenience, and it really is about if “it is not online, it does not exist” for use. Therefore, we cannot defend the past – we must plan for the future.

Bibliography

National Virtual Observatory (accessed Dec. 11, 2009);
http://www.us-vo.org/ and Association of Research Libraries (accessed Dec. 11, 2009); http://www.arl.org/resources/pubs/mmproceedings/132mmschade

Virginia Center for Digital History (accessed Dec. 11, 2009);
http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/gos/

Digital History, University of Nebraska Lincoln (accessed Dec. 11, 2009);
http://digitalhistory.unl.edu/

Barton, Tim. “Saving Texts from Oblivion: Oxford U. Press on the Google Book Settlement,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 29, 2009, Review section, (accessed Dec. 11, 2009);
http://chronicle.com/article/Saving-Texts-From-Oblivion-/46966/

Liu, Zao and Yang (Lan), Zheng Ye. “Factors Influencing Distance-Education
Graduate Students’ Use of Information: A User Study,” Journal of Academic
Librarianship, (30) 1, 24-35, Jan. 2004;
http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cookie,url,uid&db=a9h&AN=12560949&loginpage=Login.asp&site=ehost-live

Boorstin, Daniel J. 1983. The Discoverers, New York: Random House.


Donald Dyal serves as Dean, Texas Tech University Libraries. Comments or questions about this paper are welcome and should be addressed to donald.dyal@ttu.edu.