Print book reading is surging, just not in research libraries

Originally published at:


That doesn’t seem to be the case at Harvard. The newly remodeled Cabot library doesn’t have a whole lot of stack space, and large portions of the collections of the other libraries have been moved to storage. I can tell you that if you ask for something in storage, the retrieval is pretty prompt, so it’s not a real hardship.


Not surprising at all. There seems to be a subset of humans that love to accumulate books, even going so far as to have half the living room covered in bookshelves, but then they will sit among these stacks, happily reading an e-book from the library on a tablet.

They did note

The researchers forgot to take into account that although there’s few of us them in the population, there’s lots of us them in academia.


I noticed this with my local public library. They remodeled the building and now there is just 5 double sided shelves with books, carrying mostly just top 10 material like the latest Grishom novel. They also have a big computer section, meeting rooms, a kids activity center, etc… There are other branches that have a lot more books, and you can do transfers to get them to the local library, but their shelf space is pretty much gone.

For what its worth, the library is always packed when I go in there. The computer section is typically completely full. I would say they’re doing a good job serving the public need, it’s just that the public need wasn’t for dead tree editions of books.


Serendipitous discovery is a very important part of academic library research, especially at the graduate level. Leafing through the books I wasn’t familiar with that were physically next to the books I was specifically looking to “gut” provided access to facts, contexts, and insights that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. Frequently they were obscure titles that might not be digitised today and that I wouldn’t have seen if they were only available by request from the archival stacks.

I hope that an attempt to replicate this kind of discovery is being addressed as part of the digital archiving process. It not only makes for richer research outcomes but adds to the joy of the process.


I suggested a graphic novel to my friend, Saturday night. He looked it up online, found his library didn’t have it, but that he could order it on an inter library loan. Within five minutes he’d had it reserved and on its way to a local branch for pickup sometime this week.

I feel like space in cities is at a huge premium, and there are just far more useful things you can do with that physical space that maintains a library as a vital part of the community. And that with modern connectivity and responsiveness, we can still leverage the whole long tail thing and better meet people’s needs.


Even easier might have been to use the Library’s subscription to Hoopla to read it on a computer/tablet. That’s one of the reasons my local library has such a small selection, they subscribe to at least a couple of e-book services that partially fill the gap. Although annoyingly they’re kind of like Netflix where the selection is broad but shallow, so good for an author’s most popular and latest book, but usually missing everything else in their catalog.


Ask your librarians for the titles! Those e-books and audio books have a limited number of downloads, far as I know, and they’re pretty expensive so they go with best guesses so they’re not wasting money.

Depending on your state, too, you may be able to get a library card to other major cities, and get access to their digital resources.


Public library spaces are about much more than books, but the books and the atmosphere they foster make them havens for people who are marginalised or who feel threatened. That’s as important as adding additional services like maker spaces, tool borrowing, and public-use PCs.

Here’s an example I just read about recently.


Yes, browsing is tough at my (pretty recently remodeled) branch too. I can easily order anything from any branch in the Seattle library system, but browsing the shelves isn’t so fun with such a small collection.


This is very much why I bemoaned the phasing out of the card catalogue at UT. Still, you can wander the stacks, which back when the main library was in the tower undergrads mostly could not do (unless you,say, got in the Freshman Honor Society). And gawd knows the card catalogue was a bitch to maintain.


I just this morning spent about £60 buying hardback copies of books I only currently had as ebooks because I liked them enough (and plan to re-read them enough) that I wanted something more permanent.

For me, paper copies of books represent reliability. I love ebooks, I love being able to stick thirty books on my Kobo so that when I go on holiday I have enough reading material to last without having to break my spine carrying it all. But as I’ve said before, I have paper copies of books written twenty or thirty years before I was even born, and some are still in very good condition. And they’ll still be readable twenty or thirty years after I’m dead, if I’m reasonably careful with them.

In contrast, if people think they’re still going to be able to read the ebooks that they bought today fifty years from now, they’re probably mistaken. Maybe, if you back them up to a local storage device as DRM free files, that’ll be possible. But if you’re relying on them still being accessible on the services you purchased them from? I doubt it. Companies collapse, licenses expire, software and hardware passes into obsolescence, passwords are lost… Ebooks are transient in a way that printed media isn’t.


Just to note that isn’t as unmediated as people think, because it depends on the catalogers to classify the books so that they are grouped into subjects.

There’s going to be mediation involved with any classification system. The LOC system ensures that related books are still going to be in close physical proximity due to more than a cataloguer’s whim.

On the other hand, paper books burn in fires and become destroyed in floods. Ebooks backed up on cloud servers don’t. They don’t also have to be moved when you physically move. While I still have hundreds of printed books, I rarely buy any more and am slowly pruning down my collection as it is.

Most academic research deals with journal articles though – I’m showing my age by admitting that I’m of the last generation that still had to physically go to the library, find the volume of bound journal issues containing the article I wanted, go photocopy it (while being scolded by librarians that I was hurting the bindings, even though pressing down was the only way not to lose the words in the margins), and then trek back to the lab. When journals started having Web sites with article access in the late 1990s things really changed.


Yeah, right there with you on showing my age. In addition to the journals and books in the stacks there were also the microfilmed and microfiched primary sources. I’d guess digitising them was an easier task than scanning the dead-tree materials.


Cloud server centers also burn in fires and become destroyed in floods. ~shrugs~
And cloud storage services go out of business and get hacked and get shut down by governments for facilitating copyright infringement.

Besides, if you’re gonna talk about not just ebooks but ebooks backed up on cloud servers then I’ll point out that paper books which you have a second copy of in a safety deposit box are just as well backed up.


I remember the days when the best way to read an author’s early stuff was with a library.

5 shelves is pitiful.


The entire point of cloud storage is that data isn’t stored in a single copy. You’d have to postulate a catastrophe that would take out all of Google’s or Amazon’s servers (located in many different places on the globe) simultaneously. And no, comparing the few dollars a year I pay for cloud storage in no way compares to buying second (or third, or fourth) copies of all my books and renting storage for them.