Alchemical Thoughts

So, libraries keep books cool now?

Posted on: August 22, 2008

Steven Bell discusses the views expressed by Adrian Sannier, Chief Technology Officer at Arizona State University, who was the keynote speaker at the Campus Technology 2008 conference (I am not linking the video itself. It caused all sorts of errors when I tried to open it at my work computer. You can get the link from Professor Bell). The man made some statements that, to be charitable, one would say were meant to be provocative. I would say the man is slightly misinformed to be polite (clueless would be more like it). 

On the one hand, the initial impulse for me was to simply say that Sannier's statements should not even be graced with an answer. His assumptions about how electronic books work, how digitalization of books has been proceeding, that curricula would somehow be homogeneous, and not to mention all sorts of access issues tell me the guy has not done his homework. He may be a doctor in computer science, but the man does not seem to have a grasp of teaching otherwise or how academic research is done. Folks should really read Bell's and Bivens's takes on the issue; they say some things better than I would and probably more charitably too. I don't take well to yet another IT guy wanting to burn down the library because he thinks we can replace it with a couple of servers in the basement (a line that I have actually heard. Sadly, I have heard it not only from campus IT guys, but from administrators on campus as well).

I am not in a research library. I work at a (mostly) teaching institution dealing mainly with undergraduates. So I have to help maintain a library that provides for those needs, and to this day, that still means books. Also, as Marilyn R. Pukkila said in a comment to Steven Bell's ACRLog post, "Someone should tell him [Sannier] about our students who, when they find an e-book in our collections, ask if they can borrow a print copy of it from another library!" Indeed. In my experience, I offer an e-book to a student, and I may as well be pissing on his cereal given the responses I get ranging from them speculating about my degree of competence (or lack of it) to what kind of library is this. The fact is, pure and simple, that contrary to the Sanniers of the world, books are not going to disappear or go away anytime soon. Yes, I know books take up space, which for the technophiles and technolusts is a bit of an inconvenience (we can't put all our toys in until we get those pesky books out is probably their thinking). Mind you, I am not some digital techonologies expert. Heck, I don't even view myself as some 2.0 librarian. All I know is I am a librarian in the trenches in a place where teaching goes on along with some research. I do my best to support the educational and research needs of my place of work, and I happen to know making books disappear is not the way to do it, even if some administrators think otherwise. So I have to question who exactly Sannier and his ilk are serving because their attitude and clueless outlook when it comes to higher education obviously is not really serving students. And they are not even taking into consideration issues of digital divide and class differences. Maybe in places like ASU every student on campus has a laptop and pays for broadband. Where I work that is not the case. In fact, a good number of our commuter students come to campus to do their computer work because they lack broadband out in the rural areas where they live. That's what I work with. Maybe Sannier and others in their big research campuses don't have to think about that, but let's be honest. Even in the unlikely event (just for sake of the argument) that the big libraries did digitize all (and I mean all) their books and materials, who is to say then who gets access? I don't believe they would make that access freely available, so it would likely mean smaller universities would probably be priced out of access. I bet Sannier and Company are not asking that either.

Personally, I find it kind of disturbing that people like that get an audience. Sure, some provocative statements to get others thinking can be good. But those statements are not exactly just provocative. They reveal a deeper lack of understanding of how things actually work in academia when it comes to research and the educational role of libraries. And yea, yea, there are those who say that academic libraries just have to do a better role at publicity and making sure others know their value. While I do not disagree with that, after all, I am an Outreach Librarian now, I wish that once in a while some people would actually bother to do their homework and educate themselves before they speak.


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