Time to debate the virtual library

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La Trobe logoThe other day, following a train of research thought, I decided I needed to read a book: The Rise of Neo-Liberalism in Advanced Capitalism, by La Trobe’s Professor John King and Michael Howard, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2008. I checked the library catalogue, and the book is in the University’s Borchardt Library but only as an electronic resource, an ‘e-book’. This means that the full text (all 328 pages of it) is available on-line but the actual book has not been purchased.

Apart from the initial shock that if I wanted to read a hard copy I would need to go to another library which has the physical object (Monash Uni library does), I was diverted from my research with another train of thought. What does the rise of the virtual library mean for academics, students and the broader community? And who (and what) is driving this radical change in the way we do intellectual work?

There is already a vibrant debate on the blogosphere on the utility of e-books, and the impact they might have on the pleasures of reading what we understand as the traditional book. Different issues are raised for those whose job it is to research because the process of reading for an academic purpose has unique features. For example, I wouldn’t try to read The Rise of Neo-Liberalism as I would a detective novel or a work of high literature. I wouldn’t necessarily follow the narrative in the order it is presented by the authors, nor would I be reading carefully to enjoy the style of writing. Academic research in the humanities often requires a forensic selection of particular material from amongst the broader narrative, although it is usually also important to grasp this bigger picture.

So, reading a physical book for an academic purpose often requires manipulation of the object itself, perhaps by flipping forward and backwards between relevant sections. One acquires a sense of where particular points are made on the physical page, making the process of returning to key passages a matter of both physical and intellectual memory. To someone brought up with physical books, this kind of reading is not possible on a computer screen. In the words of one of my colleagues, the Library’s e-books are ‘useless’.

The University-owned physical book requires an upfront expense for the purchasing institution plus on-going storage costs, and is then free to academics and students once they have paid their fees. The e-book reverses this equation to some extent by privatising the cost of accessing the materials. For a cheaper price (and lower storage costs) the University can buy an e-book instead of the hard copy. The users are then required to pay the cost of reading devices such as laptops or the new i-pads and for the power to use them if they wish to access the texts in equivalent ways to the old technology of the book. This is particularly necessary to obtain the essential mobility of the printed book.

The geographic freedom provided by the physical book is critical to its utility in academic research. Many academics find they cannot think in the way required for advanced research at work during traditional office hours. Yet the University provides staff with a fixed desk-top computer, which it expects us to use only between Monday and Friday. (Our offices are unheated during the weekend in winter.) Students have access to a limited number of fixed computers, but the spaces where these are available are not good for the kind of concentration needed to read a book.

If the virtual library is becoming a reality, then a radical re-think of the technologies and geographies of academic work will be required.

A more important question seems to be in whose interests this very significant change is being made? The answers at this stage are difficult to perceive, although no doubt King and Howard could provide an expert materialist analysis of the force for change exerted on University bureaucrats by the technology corporations. Now is the time for a public discussion about the future of scholarly research in a world without books.

Dr Jill Murray

E: jill.murray@latrobe.edu.au