Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | May 31, 2012

On the importance of physical libraries in scholarly research

Two of my favorite bloggers (both of whom happen to be autistic and academics, like me), Clarissa and Voxcorvegis, have been having a discussion about the importance of libraries and journals for scholarly research. Clarissa is a professor in the humanities (Hispanic Literature and Studies, I believe), and Voxcorvegis is a physics graduate student. This is a topic I feel rather strongly about, and consequently, have decided to join their discussion, however briefly.

To catch you up (these are short posts, if this interests you, please just go read them), Clarissa wrote a post entitled “On Austerity” earlier today, discussing the fact that money is being funneled out of important scholarly resources at universities, such as journals, to pay for administrators and ridiculousness.

Voxcorvegis countered, saying “The point is this: as Clarissa has noted, Universities around the world are cutting back on their services in the name of “austerity.” One such budget frequently being slashed is the one for scholarly journal subscriptions. This, sadly, is every bit as true in the sciences as it is the Humanities, but what I can’t understand is why it is such a huge problem.” – in her field, physics, there’s a massive online database maintained by Cornell, that basically houses all mathematics and physics papers (among others), thus removing the need for print journals entirely. She also questions whether this is a fundamental difference between the sciences and humanities – science not needing print journals, humanities needing them.

Clarissa responded, “In Humanities, we are not looking for the most recent, cutting-edge research. The most recent sources are not necessarily superior to the ones published 20, 30, 40 years ago. If I don’t have access to articles from the 70s and the 80s, I’m in deep trouble in terms of my research. I need access to everything that has ever been published on a subject I’m researching.”

And I just wanted to weigh in, since I have a slightly different perspective entirely.

I’m just at the beginning of my academic career. While I am lucky in the sense that there exists some types of online databases for my field, they are by no means complete, and they are all paid subscriptions. Additionally, the thing I work on specifically hasn’t really been worked on since the 80s – not because its a dead end, but because the person to pioneer it passed away prematurely and suddenly, leaving a giant box of notes and not much else. They were just starting to get this field going, and no one else has tried in the past 20+ years – their great idea has just been sitting stagnant. Much of what I need for my research isn’t available online, it’s older than the internet. Additionally, as a scientist, I firmly believe that one must always know where those who walked before came from and how their experiments and thoughts worked. To be a really well-read scientist, and a good researcher, you have to not only be up to date on the most recent publications, but you must know the origination of the ideas. The so-called “classics” are super important. And for the most part, they’re not available online. Additionally, many of the “classics” aren’t the first mentions of the idea, and there’s a LOT of literature around that’s fundamental to our ideas that just doesn’t exist in electronic form. And for my classics class, I had to pull a book out of the library, to look at a paper from 1985, a veritable “classic” that isn’t available online. And the very next paper, was a different perspective, offering a similar conclusion with just a little fundamental difference. One paper ended on the right side of the theory and history. I never would’ve known of about the other one, without having picked up the physical book, and it turned out to be super important to my understanding of the field. Online databases can only take you so far – they’re great for specifics, but if you want to browse for anything, you’re basically out of luck.

Over the past year, I’ve found myself constantly running up to my school’s library to look up important, relevant papers that don’t exist in electronic form. I’ve used countless books and resources in print that just don’t exist in electronic form. Libraries are so incredibly important. Additionally, my school doesn’t have a lot of online subscriptions in my field – and they’re cutting more and more due to “lack of funding”. So for some of these papers, the only version available to me is the print version in the library, or, more often, a begging plea to my friend at a hugely well-funded university.

Finally, I subscribe to Science (the journal), and read it every week, because while it’s great to get exactly what I *need* for my research, I also really like to be able to look and see what’s going on outside of my immediate field, which is super important, because I like to know what’s going on in the rest of the scientific world. The best discoveries in science generally come from those who cross disciplines and think outside the box defined by their own field. When we lose the capability of browsing, we pigeonhole even more than we already are forced to in this day and age. Losing libraries and print journals makes it even worse. And so, I think it is an utter travesty that in this day and age, in academia, the first things to go when budgets are cut are print and online journals, followed by libraries. Sure, some of the stuff is available online, but you have to know EXACTLY what you’re looking for, and we lose every bit of potential expanding of our horizons and our minds, because we no longer have the chance to “stumble upon” anything.

In a field (academia), we are supposed to work to broaden our horizons and our minds, expanding the bounds of human knowledge and understanding. Shouldn’t we know where the boundaries are that we’re supposed to be pushing, where they came from, and not just the one pixel we’re working on ourselves? This is why I firmly believe that even if every single piece of scholarly literature was suddenly freely available online (wouldn’t that be something?), that libraries and print journals are still essential to academic research, regardless of field. Discoveries don’t come by searching for a particular keyword or paper in a database. They come when looking outside, exploring knowledge and ideas, and opening your thoughts. Libraries and print journals facilitate this in a way that is completely unparalleled in anything I’ve seen electronically.

OK, stepping down off of my soapbox now.


  1. I’ll add one more field to the list: Engineering. I just finished the first draft of a paper I’m presenting at SPIE in July. One of my citations was an SPIE paper I’d presented in 2010. It was infinitely easier to pop over to the library and flip through our paper copy of the proceedings than it was to use the SPIE online search form. FOR MY OWN PAPER!

    Two other anecdotes along these lines: Fifteen (or twenty?) years ago, I was working with a group that was etching diffraction gratings out of monocrystalline silicon. We used chunks of silicon that didn’t fit the form factor used by the microelectronics industry, so we had to design and fabricate all of our own equipment. The latest greatest research was good to read, but it was the papers from the 80’s and the 70’s and the 60’s when these materials were first being used that really made the difference. I pulled well over a hundred papers from our library during the course of our research. Without those papers we would have been lost.

    The last one: It’s not just the journals that need to be considered here. Occasionally someone in a field will set time aside to write a book that covers the state of the art at that point in time. These can become invaluable references. For my part, Colvin and Stanley’s book on gear cutting and Teuschold’s book on gear tooth form design are my go-to references. These were written in the first half of the 20th century, almost a hundred years ago. Just because it isn’t cutting edge doesn’t mean it’s not used.

    Your point about reading Science is very well taken, by the way. I’m looking forward to presenting that paper I just finished at SPIE in July. But even more I’m looking forward to seeing everyone else’s papers. Chances are I’ll never work on high energy and microwave instrumentation. But you never know when you’ll see something in someone else’s work and say, “Hey! I never thought of that!” I agree with you that cross-disciplinary thinking often leads to the best discoveries. If we can’t find ways to foster that, we lose it.

  2. Creative people are inventing new technology. This is changing how people read, which is influencing how publishers and educators operate. They want to meet customer demand. When there is a demand someone will figure out how to supply. Libraries are not just about books. They are about protecting knowledge and providing a way to disseminate it. I believe libraries will continue to do what they do. They are just evolving.

    • Yes and no. For example, I absolutely adore my kindle. I can deal with reading things in pdf form. Libraries *are* about books, in the sense that the books hold the knowledge. Yeah, I can get much of what is in the library by searching keywords online. But that’s only if I know what keywords to search. That was my main point. The ability to “browse” and look through things is something I’ve found exists *only* in the physical form. Sadly, the demand is there, the $$s are not. My school is closing libraries left and right, including ones of international renown, not because we aren’t using them (we use them heavily), but because the administrators (the ones with the $$s but not the consumers) decided that there’s no use for them anymore. And that DOES stifle research. Until someone invents a technology wherein I can flip through an entire digital book and browse through it, then look on the “shelf” at the stuff nearby, libraries will be important.

  3. I am a bibliophile, and my heart breaks at the closure of so many libraries. I understand the new technologies and how they help so many, but I mourn the thought of closing bookstores and books abandoned by the crate.

    Thank you for investigating a topic dear to my heart.

  4. You can consider me as an academia person myself. In my field, we emphasize on up to date evidence. For any national and international conference presentation proposals, 5 years is basically the cut off point for journals, books, and web sites. (Of course, we can add in historical sources once the proposal is accepted.)

    Same goes with teaching a class in my field. I consciously was picking journal articles and books that are no more than 5 years old. Considering autism is widely researched, I sure will get criticized on using articles that are more than 5 years old… as OT schools are supposed to set good examples in evidence based practice.

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