v27 #3 Resistance Is Not Futile

by | Aug 19, 2015 | 0 comments

Why Print Collections Still Matter in the Digital Age

by David M. Durant  (Associate Professor and Federal Documents and Social Sciences Librarian, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC)

In September 2010, the University of Texas at San Antonio made history when it opened its Applied Engineering and Technology Library.  This new facility was, the university proudly noted in a press release, “the nation’s first completely bookless library on a college or university campus.”1

While “bookless” or completely digital libraries very much remain the exception, a growing number of voices in recent years have called for it to become the norm.  In the same month that UTSA unveiled its new bookless library, Jeffrey R.  Di Leo, dean of arts and sciences at the University of Houston at Victoria in Texas, argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education that “academe must transform itself from a fundamentally print culture to one that is fundamentally digital” and openly looked forward to the day when “the myth of the book will be overcome.”2  Writing in the same publication, publishing executive Diane Wachtell put things just as bluntly: “We do not need books.”3  Such voices can also be found within the library profession.  According to George Stachokas, “the cumulative impact of the growth of scientific knowledge, experimentation with new technology, and millions of individual consumer choices has made the shift to the electronic library inevitable.”4  Of course, libraries have already adapted to the digital age by embracing a hybrid model that combines print collections with spaces and resources that facilitate access to electronic information.  For Stachokas, however, this hybrid library is merely “a transitional stage toward a completely electronic library.”5  In his view, “this transition could be completed in five to ten years in most academic libraries in North America, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.”6  Public libraries and libraries in other parts of the world will need a few years more to complete this transition, but are all fated to travel the same path.

There are several key concepts implicit in the idea of the inevitable transition to an all-digital library.  One is that library users are increasingly no longer interested in using print, and thus libraries should no longer waste valuable resources and space by maintaining open stack print collections.  A second major concept is the idea that text is interchangeable regardless of format.  There is no essential difference between reading words off a screen versus off a printed page, thus no essential reason why print monograph collections should not be ultimately swapped out for eBooks.  Finally, there is the notion that, regardless of what individual users or librarians might want, or whatever differences there might be between print and digital reading, print is an outmoded format doomed to all but disappear, and libraries must keep up with the times.  Only by going mostly or entirely digital can libraries remain relevant in a world that is increasingly abandoning print.

Do Users Still Want Print?

It is an article of faith for proponents of the digital library that open stack print collections are increasingly becoming anachronisms;  little used, taking up valuable space that could be much better used to facilitate access to electronic information, consuming scarce material and personnel resources at a time of fiscal challenges, and generally tying libraries to an outmoded pre-digital model that is destined to be consigned to the ash heap of information history.7  In a 2011 piece for Library Journal, Rick Anderson of the University of Utah analyzed circulation rates per student at 10 ARL institutions.  In his view, his findings indicate that “the trend away from print books is even more pronounced than we’ve often understood or assumed.”8  In addition, both survey data and sales figures show that eBooks have grown in popularity in the last few years, at least in part at the expense of print.9

However, there is plenty of additional data showing that print still retains substantial popularity among readers.  In December 2013, Ricoh Americas Corporation released a report showing that “most consumers do not see themselves giving up printed books, due to the benefits the physical form offers.” Among the study’s findings were that 60% of eBooks downloaded are never actually read; that nearly 70% of readers were unlikely to abandon print by 2016; and that “College students prefer printed textbooks to eBooks as they help students to concentrate on the subject matter at hand; electronic display devices such as tablet PCs tempt students to distraction.”10

While an office document reproduction company like Ricoh might be suspected of having a vested interest in preserving print, their findings are in line with numerous other studies.  A number of surveys of academic library users have shown a distinct, consistent preference for print books when engaging in extended, in-depth, or immersive reading.11  Contrary to what advocates of the digital library suggest, these studies show that even undergraduates prefer print when engaged in intensive linear reading.  A recent Washington Post article noted that “Textbook makers, bookstore owners, and college student surveys all say millennials still strongly prefer print for pleasure and learning, a bias that surprises reading experts given the same group’s proclivity to consume most other content digitally.”12

These frequently expressed user preferences are supported by recent sales data showing that the growth of eBooks has substantially slowed in the last several years.  According to an August 2013 study by the Book Industry Study Group, sales of new eBooks have levelled off at 30% of overall book unit sales and about 15% of dollar sales.  The same study showed that the percentage of book buyers who have bought an eBook has stagnated at around 25%.  As Jeremy Greenfield noted at Digital Book World, “eBooks have stalled out on their way up to higher altitude.”13

In short, it would appear that forecasts of the death of print have been greatly exaggerated.

Are Print and Digital Texts Interchangeable?

Many digital library advocates seem to regard this continued preference for print for extended, in-depth reading as little more than misplaced nostalgia for dead tree pulp.  It is much more likely, however, that it reflects an essential difference between reading in print versus reading off a digital screen.  There is, in fact, substantial scientific and anecdotal evidence showing that the print codex enables deep immersive reading in ways that digital reading technologies do not.14  The frequently expressed sentiment among surveyed undergraduates that reading print books allows them to better concentrate and avoid the distractions inherent to most digital devices adds further weight to these findings.

As observers such as technology writer Nicholas Carr have noted, not only do most digital devices encourage reading short bits of text as opposed to longer passages, continued use of such devices actually hinders the ability to go back and engage in deep, linear reading.  Screen-based technology, in Carr’s memorable phrase, “seizes our attention only to scatter it.”15

As the evidence regarding the distracting nature of digital devices has mounted, even some who have previously championed the superiority of the digital information environment have begun to rethink their positions.  For example, technology writer Nick Bilton, author of the 2010 book I Live in the Future and Here’s How it Works,16 returned to reading books in print in 2013, citing as his reasons the lack of distractions as well as the tactile qualities of reading a physical book, which studies show help with comprehension.17  Similarly, Clay Shirky, a pro-digital technology scholar at New York University who famously insisted in 2008 that it would be no big loss if people stopped reading Tolstoy,18 now refuses to allow his students to use digital technology in the classroom without permission due to its distracting effects.  In his words, “The industry has committed itself to an arms race for my students’ attention, and if it’s me against Facebook and Apple, I lose.”19  Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has recently extolled the virtues of reading books.20

Far from being interchangeable, then, print and digital should be seen as complementary formats for text.  Print facilitates deep, linear reading, requiring sustained, extended focus, and fostering analysis, reflection, and the ability to absorb information and integrate it into conceptual knowledge frameworks.  Electronic devices, on the other hand, tend to enable what has been called tabular reading, a form of power browsing focused on absorbing small bits of text or finding specific pieces of information.  Both forms of reading are necessary, and both need to be supported by libraries.  For the foreseeable future, supporting the full spectrum of reading requires both offering access to digital resources and retaining open-stack print collections.

Are Digital Libraries Inevitable?

The final implicit concept underlying the case for the all-digital library is that it is inevitable.  Technology marches on, and it has decreed that the print codex should disappear, regardless of the desires of individual users, or the actual merits of print vs. digital as formats for textual reading.  One can no more halt this process than buggy owners could have prevented the ascendance of the automobile.  Resistance is futile;  you will be assimilated.

This sort of crude reductionist determinism frequently appears in debates regarding the adoption of new technologies.  Technology writer Michael Sacasas has aptly described it as the “Borg Complex:” a phenomenon “exhibited by writers and pundits who explicitly assert or implicitly assume that resistance to technology is futile.”21  Except, of course, that resistance is not futile.  There is nothing inevitable about the possibility that libraries might choose to completely divest themselves of open stack areas, and relegate print to either special collections or remote storage facilities.  It would be a conscious choice.  One that, in light of what we know about the nature of reading and the differences between print and digital as reading formats, would be a fundamentally misguided one.  In the words of librarian Jeff Staiger, “as librarians en masse adopt the view that digital versions of books are destined to replace physical ones, the phasing out of print books will indeed be inevitable because it will be self-fulfilling.”22

One offshoot of the inevitability argument is the question of relevance: that as society abandons print, libraries will be forced to do the same to remain relevant.  As we have seen, society isn’t nearly as ready to abandon print as some believe.  It is, of course, true that as digital devices become ever more ubiquitous in the lives of our users, libraries will need to continue to adapt accordingly.  Yet will libraries really be “relevant” by offering users the exact same environment they can find in any coffee house or campus computer commons?  Or, rather, are libraries most “relevant” when they offer their users an experience different from what is available elsewhere in the broader society?  An experience, for example, that facilitates access to the wealth of information in digital format, while also offering the opportunity to escape the non-stop distractions of contemporary life and engage in a deeper, more reflective form of reading and research.  Providing access to the world of literacy and learning has been a core mission of American libraries since the 19th century.  Sociologist Wendy Griswold has speculated that the digital information environment will result in linear, immersive print reading becoming the exclusive property of “a self-perpetuating minority that I have called the reading class.”23  If libraries don’t continue to offer a gateway into this reading class, then who will?

Resistance is Not Futile

The advocates of the all-digital library present a stark choice:  either libraries relegate their print materials to remote storage facilities, or to special collections used only by a select handful of researchers;  or they become institutional dinosaurs.  This is a false choice.  For one thing, while print reading has declined in popularity, it is not going away anytime soon.  Many library users, including so-called “digital natives,” continue to prefer the print codex for deep, immersive, linear reading.  At the same time, the popularity of eBooks seems to have levelled off, at least for now.

Second, the print book fosters the ability to read in-depth and at-length in a way that most digital devices do not.  If we marginalize print, we risk marginalizing an entire way of reading, writing, and thinking that has proved heretofore indispensable to our society, with potentially serious consequences.  Finally, in light of the above, arguing that print’s disappearance in “inevitable” not only flies in the face of much of the evidence, but constitutes nothing more than a reductionist, self-fulfilling prophecy.  Inevitability is a choice, one most libraries would be well-advised not to make.

Preserving open-stack print collections does not preclude libraries from adapting to the demands of the digital age, far from it.  There is no reason that print collections should remain as large as they are currently, and nothing to prevent libraries from moving many of their print monographs into remote storage.  It is entirely appropriate to resize print collections to meet the needs of the electronic information environment.  The key is to do so in a way that meets the need of your specific user community, and to understand that retaining an appropriately sized open print collection is essential to meeting the full spectrum of user information needs.  For example, general purpose academic libraries need to be aware of the differing reading and research needs of faculty and students in the humanities and social sciences vs. those in STEM fields.  Scholars in disciplines such as English, History, and Philosophy remain heavily reliant on print monographs read in deep, immersive fashion to communicate research findings.  For their part, public libraries will need to support the continued desire of some of their patrons to engage in what has been termed slow reading, something that for many is most easily done using print.  We need to move beyond the simple dichotomy of print vs. digital, and understand that both formats are indispensable going forward.


  1. Christi Fish, “UTSA Opens Nation’s First Bookless Library on a University Campus,” UTSA Today, September 9, 2010. Available at: http://utsa.edu/today/2010/09/aetlibrary.html.  Accessed March 5, 2014.
  2. Jeffrey R. Di Leo, “The Cult of the Book—and Why It Must End,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 2010. Available at: http://chronicle.com/article/From-Book-to-Byte/124566/.  Accessed July 28, 2013.
  3. Diane Wachtell, “Books Aren’t Crucial, But Long-Form Texts Are,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 2010., Available at: http://chronicle.com/article/Books-Arent-Crucial-but/124569/. Accessed July 28, 2013.
  4. George Stachokas, After the Book: Information Services for the 21st Century, London: Chandos Publishing, 2014. p. 9.
  5. Ibid, p. 31.
  6. Ibid, p. 16.
  7. See, for example, ibid.
  8. Rick Anderson, “Print on the Margins: Circulation Trends in Major Research Libraries,” Library Journal, June 2, 2011. Available at: http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2011/06/academic-libraries/print-on-the-margins-circulation-trends-in-major-research-libraries/.  Accessed March 31, 2015.
  9. David M. Durant and Tony Horava, “The Future of Reading and Academic Libraries,” portal: Libraries and the Academy 15 (1), January 2015, pgs. 6-7.
  10. Ricoh Americas Corporation, “New Research Reveals Unexpected Positive Outlook For the Printed Book, Due to Love of the Medium,” December 9, 2013. Available at: https://www.ricoh-usa.com/news/news_release.aspx?prid=1164&alnv=pr. Accessed March 31, 2015.
  11. See Durant and Horava, p. 18. See also Naomi Baron, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015; and Barry Cull, “Time for Reflection?: Digital Text and the Emerging Paper Divide,” Against the Grain v.27#1, February 2015.
  12. Michael S. Rosenwald, “Why digital natives prefer reading in print. Yes, you read that right,” Washington Post, February 22, 2015. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/why-digital-natives-prefer-reading-in-print-yes-you-read-that-right/2015/02/22/8596ca86-b871-11e4-9423-f3d0a1ec335c_story.html.  Accessed March 31, 2015.
  13. Jeremy Greenfield, “Study: Ebook Growth Stagnating in 2013,” Digital Book World, October 30, 2013. Available at: http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/study-ebook-growth-stagnating-in-2013/. Accessed March 31, 2015.  Cited by Nicholas Carr, “Peak ebook?,” Rough Type, November 7, 2013. Available at: http://www.roughtype.com/?p=3966.  Accessed March 31, 2015.
  14. For an overview of this evidence, see Durant and Horava.
  15. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010, p. 118.
  16. Nick Bilton, I Live in the Future and Here’s How it Works, New York: Crown Business, 2010.
  17. Nick Bilton, “The Allure of the Print Book,” New York Times Bits Blog, December 2, 2013. Available at: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/02/the-print-book-here-to-stay-at-least-for-now/.  Accessed March 27, 2015.
  18. Clay Shirky, “Why Abundance is Good: A Reply to Nick Carr,” Encyclopaedia Britannica Blog, July 17, 2008. Available at: http://blogs.britannica.com/2008/07/why-abundance-is-good-a-reply-to-nick-carr/Accessed March 30, 2015.
  19. Clay Shirky, “Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away,” Medium.com, September 8, 2014. Available at: https://medium.com/@cshirky/why-i-just-asked-my-students-to-put-their-laptops-away-7f5f7c50f368Accessed March 30, 2015.
  20. Matthew Yglesias, “Mark Zuckerberg discovers that books are pretty great,” Vox.com, January 6, 2015. Available at: http://www.vox.com/2015/1/5/7497621/zuckerberg-on-booksAccessed March 30, 2015.
  21. Michael Sacasas, “Borg Complex: A Primer,” The Frailest Thing, March 1, 2013. Available at: http://thefrailestthing.com/2013/03/01/borg-complex-a-primer/Accessed March 1, 2015.
  22. Jeff Staiger, “How E-Books are Used: A Literature Review of the E-Book Studies Conducted from 2006 to 2011,” Reference & User Services Quarterly 51 (4), Summer 2012, p. 362.
  23. Wendy Griswold, Regionalism and the Reading Class, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008, p. 66.



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