Friday, September 23, 2011

The Brave New Bibliophobic Library

This isn't a complaint about the NYU library per se. Not at all. The fact that such an incident happened here is not indicative of an inherent local problem. (And anyway, how could a person not love a library whose catalogue's name (the Bobst Catalogue, or BobCat) gave rise to the university sports teams' mascot? That's just how the world of priorities and causal relationships should be ordered.)  I know for a fact that it simply a piece of a much broader trend in library, and particularly in interlibrary, policies. In fact, not only could this have happened to me elsewhere, it has:

I requested an article through interlibrary loan last month and received a message a few days later canceling my request because a PDF of same is available online. The ILL staff even helpfully included the link to the PDF in their communication:

In practical terms, it wasn't a big deal at all. Having requested just one article, I would have received it as a PDF from the interlibrary loan office once they would have received it from whichever library owns the volume containing the article, and I would have printed it out. And in fact, if this were a new experience for me, it might not even have registered as a problem. After all, a PDF is a PDF is a PDF, and the library staff did their jobs by helping me locate an item that I hadn't been able to find on my own. But I know that's not actually the end or extent of it.

Something similar happened with an interlibrary loan request I placed in graduate school. (In the interest of full disclosure, the rockiness of my relationship with the Cornell interlibrary loan office throughout my time there is now the stuff of legend in certain circles.) A request I had placed for a specific 19th-century German study and edition of the Sefer Musrei ha-Filosofim was similarly cancelled because it was available as a Google Book.** That was a problem. I hate reading on screen, and the eBook was not printable; and what's more, the scan was made from a copy whose pages had yellowed badly since 1896, making the digital reading that much more difficult.* And I couldn't have a physical copy of the book because of the existence of that electronic version.

In the all's well that ends well department, I made a fuss and the excellent and bibliophilic Judaica librarian intervened on my behalf, tracked down a copy from a university whose name I no longer recall, and prevailed upon the interlibrary loan office to request it. But the larger point still applies. I don't think I should have had to go to extraordinary lengths to have the hard copy of a book in my hand. Clearly the role of the library is changing, and I don't like it very much.

*Interestingly, in going to look for the link again close to three years later, I see that either a new digital copy has been made from a paper original with less damaged pages or Google has digitally lightened the pages.

** As a greater pen than mine once wrote: "I bear witness that the library is infinite."

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