Libraries – the Value of Just in Case, Not Just in Time

I am using the column this time to explain my anxiety that society risks losing too much as the materialism of ‘value’ replaces the experience of centuries of unquantifiable practice and purpose.

It is my concern that too many libraries are under threat from the bean counters. Libraries have always existed as places for the ‘just in case’ event, providing the go-to location when you want sustenance of the mind in some way – knowledge, leisure, curiosity, information, entertainment.

However the world is in thrall to the ‘just in time’ mentality of financial wunderkinds who do not value those ‘old fashioned’ concepts, looking instead at the pragmatic usability of everything, seeing a book that lives on a shelf and is only taken off once a year, or once a decade, as an unnecessary encumbrance, not earning its space in a world where everything has to be costed, to be accountable for its existence.

To this way of thinking, it is more justifiable to pay over the odds at that time of need to obtain what you want from another provider, be it an ILL or a document delivery, or pay for use online, than to have the item at hand.

It is a mentality that thinks you always know what you want and can go and locate it wherever. It makes no allowance for the serendipity of accidental discovery on a shelf, in a collection, of some title you would never have known of or would not have discovered in any other way than by browsing a shelf.

Books on library shelves have not found themselves there by accident. Over time someone has made choices of what should or should not join this group of books. A library shelf differs from a shelf in a bookshop because it has no commercial imperative behind it, no publisher pushing a title, no bookseller holding saleable stock, no shop assistant displaying attractive book jackets. In the library old and new rub along together, gathering the patina of age at different rates, making comfortable neighbours with new chums interfiled as acquired.

The utilitarian world threatens the existence of any activity that cannot demonstrate its immediate value and purpose. It cannot admit to a concept such as ‘the general good’ because this is not measurable. Yet the whole basis of the conception of libraries is the altruistic one of sharing resources for the general good at the time of need, be it today or in 20 years’ time.

In addition to their utility, the aesthetics of libraries cannot be ignored. Images are not enough to truly appreciate the joyous surroundings of beautifully conceived spaces which nurture the reader at every turn, enriching the senses as well as the brain.

We are part way through a maelstrom of change in the world of books, publishing, electronic storage, online access, software and hardware innovation, and user attitudes. It is a dangerous time, not for us, but for the folks following us in 50 or a hundred years from now. Too many are happy to throw out the past for all the wrong reasons, dictated to by the narrowly focussed pragmatists, without an eye to the power shift from consumer to producer that accompanies such actions.

Once you buy a book it is yours to have, to go back to, to give away, to donate, to lend, as you wish.

Once you buy an e-book it is restricted; you must maintain the software on your device; it must be linked to your login. You cannot loan it to a friend. Depending on platforms – from Kindle to Nook – you can’t move the ebook – if you change between the different platforms, you have to leave your e-book purchase behind, often lost to you forever.

When online subscriptions are cancelled, you may lose access to everything you have paid for over the lifetime of your electronic subscription. People may joke about endless back-sets of National Geographic filling thrift shops, but with those, you subscribed for some years, you cancelled the sub, but you still had the tangible items you had paid for.

If you had bought an electronic subscription to the same magazine in the early 1990s you may have received issues on 5 and a quarter inch floppy disks. By 2000 you would no longer have had a computer that could read these disks. The same sub in the late 90s could have come on the 3 and a half inch floppy, and by 2005 no new computer could read it either.

In all this time your book or magazine in paper could have sat untouched on its bookshelf, but when you came back to it, the technology was still functional. You could open it without instructions, the pages still turned, there was no fear of network downtime preventing you from accessing it, and it had not been superseded by an incompatible version of reader software.

Until we have uniform hardware (with software) that operate as seamlessly as a book, and provides the durability and readability over centuries, rather than half decades, we really need to defy the bean counters and be as brave as the Melbourne City Council has been, and continue to invest in libraries, and envisage an ongoing bright, and certainly broader based, future for them.


  1. David Collier-Brown

    Bravo, Ruth!

    One of the worst problems we had at a Siemens subsidiary was that we wanted to store information “forever” on write-once laser disks, but while the disks would last, the formats of the data would not. We soon found we had data which no current computer could make sense of.

    This was exacerbated by companies who accidentally created extra-legal barriers to reading their customer’s old work, and now by companies deliberately creating barriers with digital restrictions (so-called “rights”) management programs.

  2. I was quite shocked recently when re-reading an e-book purchased through Kobo to find other readers’ comments pasted in my copy. Apparently this was a new feature that readers could turn off, but was turned on by default. Imagine picking up a book off your bookshelf and discovering some stranger had written all over one of the pages.
    It was a bizarre and somewhat violating experience. Here I thought it was ‘my’ book that I had purchased. Silly me.

  3. Sarah Sutherland

    Hello Ruth,
    This is an interesting issue, and I suspect many will regret the decisions being made in getting rid of print materials in recent years.
    I wonder if you would have the same concerns for all libraries: should law firm libraries for example maintain large print collections just in case? They are at once a business expense and investment in private enterprises that may not be worth maintaining over many years for possible use in the future.
    I think one of the big concerns is that large repository libraries (which I believe are what you are concentrating on) are not able to commit to maintaining access to rare or unusual content due to a lack of commitment from people such as administrators, funders, and politicians. Hopefully more can be done with techniques like binding reciprocal agreements, so it doesn’t become a situation where librarians return to feeling compelled to keep everything they possibly can, which is a possibility if repository libraries aren’t able to commit to long term maintenance of their collections.

  4. I was a fan of e-books because it meant I could have a ton of books that would not take up a lot of physical space, however the downsides of e-books are shifting my preference back to printed copies. I was very disappointed to find my fully-functioning, but now “old” Kobo e-reader would not download books published in 2015. I would need to get a new e-reader in order to read my newly purchased book. I can’t imagine e-book companies will do anything to change this as it forces users to buy new hardware and that’s more revenue.

    So it’s time for me to clear off some shelf space and stock up on physical books!

  5. Thank you for these comments. Just to clarify for Sarah, I meant all libraries. I worked in law firms, and I think this is a case where rate of rent is more important than having books, and where the publishers will benefit by ratcheting up costs of online because they know firms will have no options. And when there is no e-version, the same firms will expect repository or large libraries to have a paper copy, which may not be the case in the future as budgets become restricted and choices are made by the large libraries to only purchase non-lendable e versions as well. It will be a perfect storm scenario…

  6. Sarah Sutherland

    I see what you mean now. It’s too bad libraries often don’t have the authority to enter into binding agreements for maintenance of reciprocal collections, to ensure some access is preserved.
    In the Saskatchewan Provincial Library they have a “last copy collection” where libraries would check if they were weeding the last copy of a title and if it was, send it to the government collection to be lent as needed. It was a great service, and something like that would be lovely in law, but law libraries in Canada don’t have a central catalogue to have the infrastructure to make it work.
    It may be that until we have the pain of that “perfect storm” the best possibility would be for law makers to give certain libraries a preservation mandate and funding. I’m sure there are libraries who are willing.

  7. Wonderful article. You have articulated beautifully the immeasurable value of libraries and what we are at risk of losing. I wish I could have done as well, having recently experienced a library closing and agonized over my inability to reason against this decision and subsequent loss. My bigger fear is that future generations won’t even be aware of what has been lost to them.

  8. This has been a long standing fear of mine, regarding electronic content. I saw the issues with materials rendered inaccessible years ago, when we found old wire recordings in our library archives, and had no machine that could play them.
    On the other side of that, I currently work in a law firm library, and we just don’t have the space or budget to include “just in case” materials. Our collection is moving more and more online, as print legal resources are expensive and time consuming to maintain. It’s also impractical to share print across a nation-wide firm with offices scattered.
    My personal collection however is mainly in print. I borrow e-books from the library when I’m travelling, but if I really want to keep something for the long haul, I feel better with the print.

  9. What a nicely-written, thoughtful piece. It makes a cogent argument for the unquantifiable value of our print materials and physical spaces that is often hard to articulate. Now if we could only get some of the people with authority over our budgets/spaces to actually read and think about it.

  10. Serendipitous discovery through browsing a bookshelf can indeed by valuable, but serendipitous discovery happens in the digital world as well—through search engine queries that turn up sources you would have never thought to consult. The parameters of serendipity have changed somewhat, but I think serendipity of online interfaces is in some ways even more useful than its analog counterpart. But here I am defending what’s useful over the unquantifiable “general good”. What’s become of me!

    Given that libraries and other cultural institution aren’t funded as well as we’d like them to be, isn’t it our moral obligation not only to press for greater funding but also to make the most efficient use of the resources we have?

    We certainly hope that the major research libraries will continue to be sufficiently funded that they can continue acquiring works “just in case” rather than “just in time”, as most libraries have been forced to, since those works might not remain available for acquisition at a later date.

    But I think the author is rehearsing a number of anxieties from recent years, many of which are not actually problems upon closer examination. To wit:

    a) Libraries today almost always negotiate the right to keep perpetual access to digital content acquired during a period of subscription after cancelling a subscription, or to host that content locally and make it available to local users. The “perfect storm” will only happen if libraries are unable to negotiate this perpetual access. Our leverage with oligopolistic publishers is bad, but I don’t think it’s that bad.

    b) Research libraries are not throwing out print material indiscriminately. They are likely to get rid of print journals if they have a guarantee of perpetual access (see (a)), whereas low-circulating non-serials are usually moved to offsite storage or discarded if the library either has perpetual access to a digital version. In certain cases, the library may check to see that copies are held in a regional shared storage facility or that there are at least a given number (say, 5) copies held in other research libraries somewhere in the country.

    c) While the earliest digital media, file formats, and software become obsolete all too fast, great progress has been made in digital preservation, especially of common digital formats for text, images, and audio. There are still plenty of problems, but we’re actually in a pretty good place for the most common formats. Secure, climate-controlled, redundant data storage is quite reliable at this point and not as fragile as library stacks, which, even in many research libraries, have serious climate-control and security issues and are at risk of fire and other disasters.

    All that said, I’m more sympathetic to the argument that you’re better off buying a print book for your personal collection than an ebook. I have not been keen to invest in ebooks for myself for these very reasons. But there’s also been good movement in world of ebooks—away from use of DRM by publishers and toward standard formats—that will help portability in the future.

    Finally, a response to Sarah Sutherland: libraries do, in general, have the authority to enter into binding agreements for maintenance of reciprocal collections. Various projects to build shared print repositories, usually at a regional or consortial level, are designed to do exactly this.

  11. Thanks Kevin. Whilst in general I agree with you, my concern was with the database providers such as Lexis and Westlaw DO NOT allow subscribers ‘the right to keep perpetual access to digital content’. I have tried arguing with them for this for many years. You stop the sub, and you lose the lot.

    I am fortunate – our library keeps everything. BUT funding to buy new titles is not as easy to obtain. Many research libraries are now reduced to an ‘either/or’ decision – paper or electronic.

    The US is far better served by digital preservation than many parts of the rest of the world, and my comments were meant to reflect the broader issues for many jurisdictions.

    My response to (c) is that yes, MOST might be converted. But some won’t, and this is the horizon that concerns me. There will be a gap of some resources lost during this period of digital transition. And we cannot judge what will be important to future scholars, we just do not know!

  12. In my library I’m taking the (possibly unusual) step of printing out copies of some of my organization’s born digital output for archival purposes. As things stand we can find out more easily what went on in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s than we can about what happened in the early years of this century because our key documents from that time were on paper and archived – unlike our more recent work which is buried on servers, outdated formats, or just lost. I intend making sure that gap doesn’t grow any further on my watch.
    I also recently lost 80% of my on-site shelving when part of our building was redeveloped, although at least I’ve been able to keep the bulk of the material on those shelves in off-site storage – and yet I’ve still had to justify it in terms that the “bean counters” will understand (marketing edge over competitor institutions – we’ve got more resources than them). It can be an uphill battle, but it’s one worth fighting.

  13. You only have ‘permanent’ access to online books and journals for as long as the company providing them remains in business.

  14. This needed saying – thank you for doing so. I hope it will be a catalyst for an in-depth debate about society’s attitude towards transmitting culture, education and information down the generations. Perhaps the bean-counters need a seminar on the meaning and value of standing on the shoulders of giants. It can’t be done if the repositories of information, be they printed or electronic, are lacking.

  15. There is space in a library for both “just in case” and “just in time”. The problem we face is how to achieve both, and maintain what you so powerful described as “the serendipity of accidental discovery”.

  16. Thank you for this article. I have been concerned for some time about the rush to remove ‘little used’ books from the public library shelves. The race to have clear space on the shelf means that all that is left is the popular novel or current celebrity biography, the books being highlighted in the media or the texts about a skill or activity promoted in the latest reality show. I exaggerate of course, but what I have always loved about libraries is that discovery of an author whose book is tucked away at the end of the row, or being led off at a tangent when doing some research into one subject, and discovering fascinating information about another. I do not advocate hanging on to absolutely everything, as weeding is always necessary to some degree. However, I question the apparent obeisance to the library management tools which reduce anything, which hasn’t been out in six months/a year, to book sale fodder.

  17. Catherine McArdle

    What a great article Ruth. I could hear myself echoing many of your statements – especially about the diferent formats of floppy disks.

  18. Mike wrote, “You only have ‘permanent’ access to online books and journals for as long as the company providing them remains in business.” However, if the company providing them participates in LOCKSS, CLOCKSS, or Portico, or has a direct agreement with a trusted digital repository (for example, Elsevier’s with the Koninklijke Bibliotheek), then there is a plan for preserving the content even if the company goes out of business.

  19. Excellent article, Ruth. And wonderful nuanced thoughtful discussion in the comments. My thanks to all contributors.
    Hopefully SLAW is being archived for posterity somewhere too.