e-books and the humanities

Inside Higher Ed published an article this week on the recent controversy surrounding the decision by the Bird Library at Syracuse University to store rarely used texts at a site 250 miles away from campus, which has stirred debates in LIS and scholarly circles. I’ve been reading commentary in my twitter stream and RSS feeds that considers many of the subjects touched on in the article, from the role of the library and the librarian (book depository or learning commons?  Book Lover or knowledge and asset manager?) to the role of the book in the academy itself (essential to the programme, or redundant in the wake of digitization?).

There are a lot of subjects to tease out of this one post, especially on the profession’s ability to promote its mission to the wider public.  Face it, we don’t know what to call ourselves, we don’t properly and consistently explain what we do to the public, and people often don’t understand the role we play in their institutions and in society at large.  Although the subject of identity and promotion is dear to my heart, the Inside Higher Ed article touches on an undercurrent always topical in LIS circles, which is the place of the monograph in contemporary scholarship.  As we see in the original post (and also witnessed in the always-superb Little Professor blog, there is a genuine concern for the role and the place of the book in humanities libraries (let alone the scholarship!) today.  As a one-time arts student, I appreciate this concern; I spent many days and nights leafing back and forth through texts in order to immerse myself in and learn how a writer’s language and rhetoric toyed with her – and my own – understanding of the text.  So much of our literary and intellectual culture exists in a paradigm that demands individual and constant reflection of the words on the physical page, but the interaction with the text that e-books offer the reader is a poor substitute to the relationship we have with the words we find in print.

That the printed word is vital to humanities research is a truth.  That the printed word is being replaced by its digital cousin, however slowly, is a fact as well.  Economic models, and more importantly,  our culture’s interactions with the word is changing, or has already changed the way in which books are published, collected (or licensed/accessed) and read.  But I think it’s still far too soon before we should hold a wake for the monograph; so long as e-book readers remain prohibitively expensive and DRM continues to offer few benefits to the end-user, and e-book platforms such as MyiLibrary and eBrary refuse to enter consensus on a common look and utility, then the e-book will remain secondary to the printed text.

I’m not suggesting that the e-book will forever be a poor cousin to the printed and bound copy of a text – far from it.  I’m merely contending that we are still a few years away (maybe as few as 2 or 3, maybe as many as 5) before the hand-held e-book reader reaches a critical mass in the marketplace and eclipses the print edition as the format students turn to first. Until the day comes when a plurality of the public carries their own e-book reader, then the printed copy will be the main source for the humanities.

But what of the day when the e-book does assert dominance over the printed text?  Will we dispose all of our bound originals?  Will scholarship on the author’s interaction with the physical object or the study of book history fall by the wayside? Likely not.  These, and others, are strong disciplines and I don’t think the humanities will allow them to wither on the vine. Scholarship in the humanities and the tools of the scholar may change, but it will not disappear. On the contrary, our study of the actual physical text will be more important than ever, especially after such a monumental shift in reading culture will have occurred with the shift to e-readers.