The printed page remains essential for scholars and students

As university libraries invest heavily in digital resources, Caroline Ball explains why physical books are still vital for research, teaching and the preservation of knowledge

September 4, 2023
Source: Getty Images

Academic libraries and archives serve a vital role: preserving and providing access to information and texts that enrich education. But this mission faces challenges in an increasingly digital era in which students rely more on online resources.

Physical books and media allow outright ownership. Once acquired, libraries can freely share, preserve and reformat their collections. But digital offerings such as e-books and online journals usually provide only limited licensing, which can imperil long-term educational access.

When students search for an e-book or article online, they might not realise the full text is often licensed, not owned, by their university library. Publishers impose restrictions on allowing downloads, printing, sharing between users or even page access over time. Access depends on ongoing payments to vendors. If budgets shrink, subscriptions lapse and availability vanishes.

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Unlike physical books that remain on library shelves, digital content can disappear instantly. And remote hosting means even librarians cannot preserve or migrate texts to new formats for future access. Our role as stewards of knowledge is disrupted.

This also affects access to born-digital publications such as web content or blogs. Without proactive archiving, online texts simply vanish when servers go offline or sites shut down. UK libraries wanting to collect and preserve vanishing digital works often find themselves stymied by copyright law and prohibitive licensing costs.

Whereas physical media can be freely loaned and reused, digital licensing hinders libraries from fully serving their educational purposes. It also transfers excessive power to publishers motivated by profits more than public access. Campaigns such as #ebookSOS are working to raise awareness of how the high prices and restrictive licences of academic e-books limit access to information, not just in the UK but globally.

Some push back by arguing that the convenience of digital access offsets downsides such as restrictions or impermanence. But studies show that e-books limit absorption and retention compared with physical texts. And students continue to report preferring print for extended reading and study.

Physical books also avoid issues such as digital eyestrain or device costs that exacerbate educational inequalities. Finally, research indicates that our minds best comprehend complex concepts when engaging multiple learning modalities – auditory, visual, tactile. Physical media better enable this multifaceted experience.

Despite this, budget pressures increasingly push libraries towards digital-only models. And publishers keep narrowing licensing terms in the hope of maximising revenues. This shifts the educational cost burden to students and libraries in the form of recurring subscription and platform fees.

The result is students becoming dependent on resources that could functionally disappear overnight because of corporate decisions. This does not serve academia’s role as steward of generational knowledge.

What’s at risk goes beyond textbooks. Primary sources, rare books and special collections offer unique windows into knowledge and history. But only a small fraction of UK universities’ specialised holdings are digitised, if at all.

Physical access restrictions due to Covid brought this into stark relief. Without on-site access, many rare resources were functionally non-existent for remote students and researchers. When the Internet Archive enabled scans of print books to be borrowed digitally during the pandemic, publishers sued to stop this access. This reveals how profit-driven interests often limit public access to information rather than expand it.

Even digitising orphan works (where the rights-holder is unknown) raises challenges around preservation, rights and reformatting costs. A particular quirk of UK copyright law means that unpublished orphan works are collectively protected by copyright until 31 December 2039 and therefore cannot even be displayed, let alone digitised. Estimates as to the scale of these works reach into the hundreds of millions, some items hundreds of years old, hampering access to vast troves of unique cultural resources.

Libraries must consider innovative models that balance convenience and restrictions. Some possibilities include:

– Copyright provisions enabling format shifting of digital texts for archival purposes.

– Revising licensing terms for education to facilitate sharing and preservation.

– Library exemptions from digital rights management (DRM) and copyright limits on digital archiving.

– Public funding to digitise rare printed works and special collections.

– Policies requiring continued legacy access to discontinued academic resources.

– Subsidising libraries to maintain community-accessible print collections.

– Interlibrary partnerships to preserve print equivalents of critical digital resources.

Academic libraries are exploring alternative digital models as well, such as open educational resources (OERs). But print retains an irreplaceable role for in-depth reading and reliable long-term access.

The key is utilising each format’s strengths in a blended model. Print provides permanence and ownership. Digital enables discovery and accessibility. We must avoid an uncritical rush to digitise every text before ensuring licensing terms serve academia’s core mandate – the preservation and transmission of knowledge.

With the proper framework, academic libraries can fulfil this mission. They can leverage digital resources for their searchability while maintaining print equivalents to ensure continuous access. This best serves the next generation of scholars, providing technological convenience without conceding permanent availability to corporate control.

But achieving the right balance requires advocating for education and access-centred policies. Academia must make the case for digital offerings on reasonable terms, not maximising publisher profits. Otherwise, we risk a digital erosion of knowledge entrusted to libraries and archives.

Inclusive access to information enables social mobility, discovery and growth. But convenience must not trump permanence. Libraries and universities serve society, not shareholders. With public-minded digital policies, British academia can harness technology’s potential while safeguarding the enduring availability of knowledge. This promises a richer intellectual heritage, freely accessible to all seeking personal growth.

Caroline Ball is an academic librarian (business, law and social sciences) at the University of Derby.

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Reader's comments (9)

This author writes as if it were 1995. They do not understand Open Access in its many forms. The transformations in publishing, library budgets, and space limits. Let alone transformations in both student and faculty habits and research practices. How can she be an "academic librarian" in 2023?
I understand OA just fine, but it wasn’t the focus of this article, and it isn’t the perfect solution you seem to imply. Or libraries wouldn’t still be struggling with the issues I write about. Check out #ebookSOS or talk to any librarian for more information. Have a good day!
As an academic librarian who works with Open Access, I can confidently say that it doesn't go anywhere near solving the issues addressed in the article. In the current prevalent OA models (namely mostly those which involve paying an Article Processing Charge), publishers still maintain a lot of control (especially those who are not transparent with the CC licences that authors can use and the retention of their rights). OA also doesn't address the issue of digitisation of print works, and OA monograph publishing is still in its infancy and again often involves charges. In an ideal world OA releases information from the grips of the publishers, but unfortunately it doesn't currently work like that!
Good points. I'd add physical books afford faster browsing than online. search boxes and hyperlinks are a pain. sitting in a conference I found it easier to follow the speaker using a printed proceedings than trying to do so with a digital. and a pencil is a convenient tool for making marginal notes. Whilst we have not been given a choice not all academics like and support the new open access model. its become a new tail that tries to wag the dog
With an archivist's mindset I just make sure to keep my own digital copies of, well, everything, not rely on other people's online storage and goodwill in allowing access. However as a counter-argument, the use of a digital 'master' and print-on-demand means that things don't need to go 'out of print' and are more easy to revise as new information comes to light.
Gold OA fails on the misconception that "publishers" could be the keepers of the scholarly record; that is the role of libraries. Our libraries are full of books whose publishers disappeared a long time ago. – And may I ask, what do we still need "publishers" for in the era of the internet?
A library cannot provide as many copies as the number of students that may need the book, so ebooks are a necessity. I agree with having at least a hard copy, too.
I wrote about this subject especially in relation to art & design in a piece for Art Monthly in 2013. In these subject areas (and no doubt many others) tactility and the intangible quality of 'the real thing' are crucial. Read the full article here:
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