Opinion | Libraries should be both digital and physical | Opinion

JMU has two main libraries. Carrier Library on Main Campus is the oldest library at JMU, which was originally built in 1940, while the newer Rose Library provides a study space on East Campus. JMU also houses a Music Library in addition to the Educational Technology and Media Center. The university features rare, archival material among each of its libraries as well as an extensive digital collection.

When browsing the bookshelves in these libraries or ascending through the stacks, some may wonder how often these books are actually used by students and faculty. Considering the large footprint of Carrier and Rose libraries, these books must warrant taking up valuable space within them that could be used to expand existing student study space.

Furthermore, with the transition toward reading digitally, both for pleasure and academicsexperienced by many students who already use digital textbooks as a more convenient and, oftentimes, less expensive way to study, it may seem more efficient to entirely digitize JMU’s library collections. However, the process of converting print books into digital documents can leave out important details that shed light on the historical context in which print books were published, as well as being time-consuming and sometimes unreliable.

Books as historical artifacts

Bethany Nowviskie is the Dean of Libraries and a professor of English at JMU. Before coming to JMU, Nowviskie was the executive director of the Digital Library Federationan organization focused on the advancement of research and digital library technology.

Nowviskie discussed the importance of maintaining a robust collection of print books, especially those published in the 19th and 20th centuries and earlier, as they’re historical artifacts that reflect the times in which they were created.

“It’s really important what is embedded in the physical form of a book … that have within them variance,” Nowviskie said when referring to her collection of copies of Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne’s 1866 edition of “Poems and Ballads.” This edition, due to its inclusion of then-taboo topics, resulted in a sudden switch in publishers and ultimately inconsistent printing. Nowviskie explained that she’d never come across two identical copies of the 1866 edition of “Poems and Ballads” and that these discrepancies indicate the nonstandard circumstances in which the book was published.

Digitizing print books reduces them to a single dimension with which the reader can know the author, their expression and its context. Emily Dickinsona renowned 19th-century American poet, is known for her uses of dashes of irregular length to control the pace at which the reader reads her poems. However, the conversion of Dickinson’s poetry into a digital format has resulted in dashes of equal length, diminishing Dickinson’s expression. The same is true of her contemporary, Walt Whitmanwhose famous collection of poems “Leaves of Grass” was published numerous times under the same title, yet included different poems each time.

When discussing the historical value of older books, Nowviskie mentioned the fire that destroyed some of the University of Virginia’s (U.Va.) library collection in 1895. She described how after this event, the U.Va. appealed to Virginia residents to send some of their book collections to supplement what had been lost. Because of this, some of U.Va.’s collection now hosts books with the notes of their original owners. These are details that can never be replicated digitally; These books have been steeped in history and are artifacts of the lives of average people who lived centuries ago.

By digitizing all books, a book is limited to a singular version of it and therefore removes a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the text and the author. Future scholarship regarding a text is also limited if the scope of what that text can be is narrowed down to one particular copy or edition. Though the study of literature is well-developed, room must be left for future generations to discover something new.

Problems with digital conversion

Many books published hundreds of years ago have been left behind or become worn down with time — and digital books are no exception. With the massive amount of digital content flooding the internet every second, if a document isn’t considered worth passing on, it can get lost. Moreover, with browser updates, servers being taken offline and the corruption of data, digital books may fare worse than printed ones over time.

“It’s not just the physical space that is a factor, it’s the stability of a print object versus a digital object,” Nowviskie said. “We don’t really know how to preserve digital objects indefinitely.”

Though technology has improved and scanning books into digital formats has become easier, the process of digitizing all of literature hasn’t been streamlined, nor is it viable at this scale. This is demonstrated by the ongoing efforts of Google through its Google Books program.

Google Books, launched in 2004, began as an initiative to convert the books of the world’s libraries into a digital format. Though this program seemed straightforward at the get-go and would presumably allow many books to be more easily translated, searched and accessed, it became apparent that the task would be burdensome upon execution. In 2019, 15 years after its inception, Google Books celebrated its conversion of 40 million unique titles only 31% of the total number of unique titles that have been published according to Google’s estimate of 130 million.

The future of libraries at JMU

When asked whether JMU Libraries’ physical collection should be digitized, Nowviskie mentioned its relatively compact size when compared to other schools, as well as JMU’s transition to a more research-active R-2 design. She also said JMU Libraries was able to achieve a catalog that wasn’t bloated by an excess of unused books through a collection development committee which has representatives of different disciplines at JMU that’s constantly looking at JMU Libraries collection.

“This library, over the decades, has actually done a splendid job at fine-tuning its collection to use … we actually have quite a small collection,” Nowvisikie said. “It was very tightly curated over the years to connect to the kind of research that was happening at JMU and the kind of teaching that was happening at JMU.”

JMU also intends to renovate Carrier Library in the coming years. Nowviskie noted that Carrier Library has many areas that need improvement, including updating accessibility and improving protection of its rare books collections. To guide the renovation of Carrier Library, JMU Libraries has been incorporating concerns and suggestions from students. According to student feedback groups conducted by JMU Libraries, Nowviskie said, students’ main concern was a hope that JMU did not tamper with the classic appeal of Carrier Library or make it a “soulless, bookless library.”

The optimal library experience curates all the tools at its disposal to inspire people to learn more about the past and encounter new ideas. These tools include the physical space and printed books as well as digital material. Finding the balance between digital and physical is important to maintaining libraries’ relevance in the digital age and to preserve our historical heritage.

Contact sophomore English major Evan Weaver at weavereh@dukes.jmu.edu. For more editorials regarding the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the opinion desk on Instagram and Twitter @Breeze_Opinion.


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