Home 9 Blog Posts 9 Print as a Type of Privilege

Print as a Type of Privilege

by | Mar 9, 2022 | 4 comments


By Gwen Evans, VP Global Library Relations, Elsevier 

I took part in many discussions with academic librarians about a return to print due to reader preference in my previous roles as Director of Access Services and the Executive Director of OhioLINK. Users and libraries are responding to struggles with e-book licensing, preservation of print vs. e-books, research showing that print is a better medium for knowledge retention, etc. Ebook sales have slowed, there is pushback on textbook companies’ all-digital strategies, and long-form readers still use print although ebook use is increasing. However, in either a principle-driven or practical return to print, we shouldn’t let nostalgia for the print format obscure the shortcomings of print and hierarchies of privilege that the academic library universe embodies. The cons of digital publishing are more widely noticed because it is relatively new and a nostalgic view of print can obscure some unintended side effects and underestimation of the fully loaded financial and social equity costs of print. 

Print can certainly be great – for the one person who currently has it in their hand. Like nostalgia for the card catalog, nostalgia for the print book has a “one user at a time” disadvantage, with which those of us who worked a circulation desk are all too familiar. I’ve seen graduate students burst into tears because a book was recalled from them or their attempt at renewal was unexpectedly blocked by a hold. Undergraduates become panicked if a print book is missing from the shelf and they are relying on it. Anyone who has run a reserve room to ensure that all students have reasonable shared access to course materials is familiar with the frustration when items are not returned on time, often deliberately. Libraries may resort to draconian measures to try and get these books back for the benefit of the rest of the class, including repeated phone calls, holds on an individual’s library or institutional account, and the last resort of notifying the instructor. Any interlibrary loan librarian who ever answered a “there’s a patient on the table” request from a hospital back in the day is familiar with the sprint around photocopy rooms checking piled-high stacks of journals because the volume wasn’t on the shelf. If a print book is course-adopted, few libraries have enough copies to meet demand. A print sharing consortium can vastly increase access by making available more copies via rapid interlibrary lending. But every year, the very existence of such networks raise, and then crush, the expectations of college students that all of them can get all their textbooks for free. 

Travel times, availability of parking, and library service hours (not just open hours) also have differential impacts on users. More burden falls on those who live off campus, attend part-time, or have limited capacity to visit the library because of other obligations. Parking or public transportation (or lack thereof) to get to some libraries can add time and cost. Some libraries will mail available print books to distance or online students but that still adds extra time for access. These issues come with the ambient conditions of access to individual physical books bound by time and place rather than deliberately designed access restrictions.

However, physical items are often embedded in deliberately designed hierarchies of access to manage scarcity. In some academic libraries, faculty may borrow books for much longer periods than graduate students, and undergraduates typically get the shortest loan periods of all. The ability to recall a book (and from whom) sometimes operates on a hierarchy. Some collections, formats and item types are limited to “library use only” for some but have more expansive privileges for others. Sometimes access to browse shelves in the stacks and borrowing privileges in disciplinary libraries are restricted for different categories of patrons. Some institutions limit the ability of certain user groups to use interlibrary loan, or may require cost recovery. Of course, these policies are all attempts to manage competing priorities around the limitations of scarcity and physicality. As print circulation has dropped, some libraries have equalized these access policies. These techniques of managing scarcity would need to be reimposed if print became a primary and preferred format. The larger and more active the patron base, the more such management of access may be necessary. 

While the hierarchies discussed thus far are more deliberately considered and transparent, there can be more pernicious aspects to limited access in the academic universe. There are the demands that faculty and researchers may make on their students. Within departments, it is possible and not unusual for faculty to guess or know who has a particular book checked out and ask for it to be returned to the library so they could borrow it, or they borrow it directly from the student. Sometimes the faculty member doesn’t return it and the student incurs the lost book fee or the administrative hassle. The subtle pressures of status, power, prestige, and privilege continue to operate regarding access to limited physical resources. This may be done by commandeering the library material from someone of lesser status and power or helping some, but not all, students circumvent access limitations by borrowing or accessing materials on their behalf. These systems encode, either by design or by accident, many more systems of privilege and opportunities for abuse of power than institution-wide unlimited simultaneous access to e-book collections or e-journal subscriptions. Consistent access to reliable internet and a device to access digital resources requires financial and geographical privilege. But in North America and much of Western Europe, colleges and universities are now so digitally dependent (especially after 2020) that everything from registering for classes, instruction, and receiving critical information from instructors requires digital access also. Institutions in these countries must work to ensure at least a minimum level of digital access for the entire enterprise to function. Of course globally the situation can be much different with respect to digital access, which will be a topic for a later post.

Many users of libraries imagine that libraries are like Dr. Who’s Tardis – magically bigger on the inside and capable of ingesting an ever growing collection without the need to weed (i.e. removing items to make room for new ones) or build new facilities. OhioLINK owes its origin as a print sharing network to the state legislature’s refusal to fund $121 million (in 1980 dollars) for the expansion of multiple state university library buildings due to the huge space demands of print. Legislatures have been unenthusiastic about increased sustainable funding of already efficient and cost-effective shared low-use print repositories. It is a difficult value proposition in underfunded public institutions. 

The assumption that privacy is better protected in print is also debatable. Any library that relies on student employees in access services is deluding themselves about how much information leakage there is on who is checking out what – no matter how well you train the first year students who staff the circulation desk and document delivery/ILL services. They aren’t actually in the librarian profession and the temptation to chatter about the reading habits of classmates, romantic crushes, TAs, and professors can expose potentially sensitive information precisely in the social contexts where it matters most.

We can think about dual format library environments (print and e-resources of the same content) as ensuring equity of access for all kinds of needs. This of course includes access for those with disabilities; At least 10% of the population is print disabled and is unable to use a paper book either because of dyslexia, vision impairment, or inability to turn a page. However, the hidden social and power dimensions of a “print or die” attitude need attention also. The challenge becomes managing formats so that the majority of users have access in a way that is serviceable for their needs in this broader sense. Perhaps then the real administrative advantages, costs and challenges of multiple format environments (including the increasing use of audio) become more explicable and defensible in the current economic environments on campuses.

The rise of digital obliterated some of these hidden hierarchies of access as well as some of the work and inconvenience on the part of both users and library staff in managing limited physical resources. The expanding storage, care and migration of formats, management of access in a variety of senses including metadata and linking in various platforms, and bit-level preservation of digital is now a cost and a service of the publishers. Libraries still perform those functions and shoulder those costs for their print collections, but it is rare to see total cost of ownership and access directly compared with e-materials. Cost per use for print can be a very complex calculation and it is worth revisiting Courant and Nielson’s 2010 article “On the Cost of Keeping a Book.” In addition, there is the opportunity cost of print –if any one person is using a copy, how does one quantify the opportunity costs to those who wanted it at the same time and couldn’t access it? There are unintended and perhaps unsavory consequences in privileging (pun intended) any system that erects a more metered, less anonymous, more hierarchical method of individual access. I’m suggesting that we include these considerations of accessibility and equity when we ask ourselves and the administration at our institutions “is it worth it, and for whom?” 

About the Author: Gwen Evans joined Elsevier in 2020 as the VP of Global Library Relations. Previously, Gwen spent seven years as Executive Director of the state agency/library consortium OhioLINK. She held the position of Associate Professor and the Coordinator of Library Information Technologies at Bowling Green State University until 2012. She has extensive experience with all types of academic libraries including consortia. Her recent publications include an Ithaka S+R issue brief co-authored with Roger Schonfeld, It’s Not What Libraries Hold; It’s Who Libraries Serve: Seeking a User-Centered Future for Academic Libraries” and “Creating Diversity in Libraries: Management Perspectives” in Library Leadership & Management with Mihoko Hosoi and Nancy S. Kirkpatrick.


  1. Wally Grotophorst

    “…physical items are often embedded in deliberately designed hierarchies of access to manage scarcity.”

    Yes, that’s likely true at the margins, but it pales compared to the deliberately designed access scarcity surrounding e-content. Working to empower controlled digital lending of e-content would be one helpful step Elsevier might consider.

  2. Brandon Nordin

    No denying that as a management tool, ebooks are better for tracking and managing circulation and access. And can, if designed correctly, provide an enhanced “reading” or learning experience (such as live links to maps, pop up glossaries etc.). But I think the digital format comes with its own set of privileges and exclusions as well – being device-dependent for a start.

  3. Gwen

    Hi Brandon, absolutely agree. It has just struck me after decades in libraries managing both access to print and access to e-resources, there’s quite a bit of elision of some of the downsides of print; and one of the most interesting things to me was a consideration of some of the hidden social aspects of access that lie outside the library’s control. It requires a balancing act on the part of libraries regarding p and e formats, and for whom.

  4. Andy

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post. It should be noted that this is just a subset of issues of information privilege, and if one had more space, one would want to consider this subset together with the larger set, including but not limited to the issues noted by previous commenters.

    “The expectations of college students that all of them can get all their textbooks for free” will only be fulfilled when open-access textbooks are subsidized.

    Regarding privacy and book checkout, it has been probably about a decade since a human has checked out my books at the library; the public library system that I use has self-service checkout machines.

    For me, especially as I become less physically able with age and disease, it has been a relief that remote-access electronic information has reduced the time and physical effort required to access information, not only the travel time required to get to the library but also the time required to retrieve information from multiple locations in the library stacks.

    It is a joy to see the gradual erosion of the exclusion caused by print privilege, but I wouldn’t want to see the complete elimination of print information from libraries. We should find ways to reduce exclusion while retaining the benefits of an environment that is not lacking print information. We should aim to expand possibilities, not to eliminate them.


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