I am generally fairly IT savvy (I even have an ancient IT degree), but at the same time I am rather unconvinced that the future is as digital as everyone says. In particular I have been appalled at the constant destruction of physical books by university libraries. Now I am informed that a major Australian university library has destroyed – not sold or given away, mind you, destroyed – some 400,000 science books, including an irreplaceable palaeontology collection that a senior researcher had just arrived to curate.
The justification by the head librarian concerned was twofold, I am told:
1. “In a few years there will be no books in libraries; everything will be digital” and
2. “We couldn’t sell or give them away because of our licensing agreements.”
Apparently the same licensing agreement prevented the librarian from notifying the deans, heads of school or researchers curating the collections. A unique collection of bound journals from the 1920s and 1930s was destroyed without even being catalogued, because “we didn’t know how to catalogue bound journals”.
There is no record whatsoever of what was destroyed, and the cost of replacing as many of these items as can be replaced looks to be in the tens of millions of dollars.
The palaeontology works were destroyed because (and I am told this was said in front of a dozen or so palaeontology researchers) “Nobody does palaeontology at [the university concerned] any more”.
Books are more than the information contained within them. Scanned photographs and figures are not as good as the originals, and precious detail gets lost unless somebody scans at extremely high resolution. In any case, these lost works were not scanned, just trashed.
A book is like a specimen in a museum (also being trashed according to stories I hear from various specialists); it must be preserved for the future. Unfortunately we have a generation of managers, librarians and students who think that physical objects are unnecessary for study, and we run the risk of settling into a comfortable illusion of our own making.
As I am not an accredited journalist, and therefore do not enjoy the freedom of speech of somebody with the professional integrity of an Andrew Dolt or Alyin’ Jones, I cannot name the university, but I shall not name my sources. Any investigative journalist who wants to find out more will have to ring around.