A few years ago some doofuses at my post-doc institution decided that libraries were basically a waste, and that it made more sense to store most of the collections off-site and turn the existing library into more of a lounge, complete with bean-bag chair filled rooms and lots of computers. The Dean of Library Destruction (I think that was the official title) at the time tried to push this idea through without much input from the faculty, who were understandably concerned.
This idea is, for many reasons, idiotic. It is the type of idea you’d come up with if you had no concept of what academics actually did and a fetish for empty shelves. I understand wanting to save space and stay modern, and perhaps acknowledging that most people get their recent scientific papers digitally, but the assumption that the current state of digitalized resources is anywhere near ready enough to fully replace printed material is plain wrong, especially in dealing with material older than about 15 years. Maybe in a few decades it will be a different story, but we are not there yet. Online and digital resources are impressive until you delve into the deep cuts necessary for actual academic work.
During the course of a semester or so the Dean made her case and I heard a number of reasonable concerns raised by faculty and graduate students. Issues of access, the archivability of digital files hosted on an external server, the importance of browsing shelves, etc. Some issues are shared amongst many disciplines, and some are more specific; all were unaddressed, I might add. In my mind there are two main problems facing those who wish to fully digitize earth science journals: inserts and images.
Inserts are rather self explanatory, many journals and collections include geologic maps. These are often large folded sheets kept in the back of an edition. These are rarely scanned properly, if at all, and this is a problem. These are often things like detailed geologic maps and cross sections that might not exist anywhere else.
But here is my biggest problem, images. Geology is a very visual science. Where bulk scanning technology may be decent at capturing black and white text, when it comes to scanning images it just blows. Many papers use field and specimen pictures to illustrate points and bolster their interpretations. Many journals reproduce these photos in exceptionally high quality, even including photographic plates that use glossy photo paper instead of regular old journal print pages. What I’ve found is that the people in charge of digitizing really don’t care about the images, or there is at least no effective quality control. Maybe there is a solution to this problem, but remember the people who want to empty out the libraries want to do it now, years before we’ve developed and tested the technology, and decades before the academic communities have had enough time to provide input and guidance for the final products. It’s a little like plowing under all of the roads because one day we’ll be driving hovercars….slow your roll Dean-o. In many cases the images represent samples or places that are difficult or even impossible to recreate or visit, and while the interpretations may change, the fundamental observations often do not. Images and descriptions of remote or now inaccessible locations, or of rare samples from decades back are invaluable, and any digitizing technology needs to appreciate that before it is relied upon. Especially when the only gain is a library building now filled with bean bags, coffee shops, texting students, and empty iced mocha cups.
Now, they are not all terrible, but the inconsistency is what worries me. I’ve decided to compile some wonderful examples of some of these scanned images, so that we can all marvel at how useful the coming digital library will be.