Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Rebuilding Canterbury the smart way #1: Libraries

So.... going off-topic a little...I've been thinking about our future here in Canterbury after Saturday's earthquake, and about what the positive opportunities are to invest wisely in our future.

First off: libraries. My wife is currently a student at University of Canterbury, whose libraries were devastated by the quake as shown in these shocking pictures: http://www.canterbury.ac.nz/photos.shtml

So the questions I'd be asking are: how much money is available to rebuild a library, and how should it be best spent?

Option 1:

  • Renovate or completely rebuild the building
  • Buy a load of new shelves
  • Purchase a library-full of replacement books
  • (Not to mention chop down forests, use litres of ink, ship the books from A to B and pay someone to catalogue them and stack the shelves....)
  • AND: the knowledge in the book is out of date the moment it's set to paper

Option 2:

  • Ensure that all study materials are published online from now on
  • Provide campus-wide free wifi
  • Subsidise all students to buy a tablet with e-reader software (see http://www.androidtablets.net/ for some examples)
  • AND the knowledge is updated without needing a reprint, plus everyone gets accessible wireless internet access to carry around with them.
So if you're in charge of the business case for rebuilding UC's libraries, think forward rather than backwards! Books are just too obselete now to support a modern learning environment, and commodity technology is well ready to replace them.


catd said...

Not all knowledge is available in an electronic format at this stage - getting rid of books entirely is probably rather ambitious and counter-productive in an academic environment.. But agree that things shouldn't just be put back how they were because it's how it's always been..

Sidenote: most of the books are probably ok, just a bit squished.

Anonymous said...

Employ more librarians

Deborah Fitchett said...

I haven't been there yet, so am talking from third-hand information and am definitely not speaking for the organisation, but my impression is that there's been no major structural damage, just a lot of mess. And I'm not underestimating just how much a mess it is (and if I am, I'll pay for it when I do get there and have my illusions cruelly shattered :-) ) but it's not really anything I'd characterise as "rebuilding". (In EPS Library we *did* do some rebuilding last summer, and (knock on wood now I guess) are scheduled to do a bit more this summer, and the change in how people access information has played a role in how we've planned those.)

Unless you're speaking hypothetically?

In terms of electronic material - we already have a lot of online stuff, and continually buy more because it often has tremendous advantages over print. But a lot just doesn't exist electronically, and even when it does there are issues to consider. Jason Griffey recently wrote about DRM and format compatibility issues - you can't just give people an ereader and say they now have access to everything electronically, because with any given ereader there'll be material that cannot be used on that device.

So... I don't know, there's a lot unknown, but it's not as simple a question as it seems at first.

Lucy said...

Also, I don't know if you have had to do a lot of reading for your study, but reading hundreds of papers and books on a screen is actually a real bugger - and if you only have one monitor, or a laptop, logistically very difficult if you want to refer to multiple things while writing. Plus many subjects just aren't that computer-oriented (e.g. history, where the good stuff is in books, or geology, where a 200-year-old field report can still be highly valuable.) If you're going to give everyone an e-reader and/or multiple monitors, maybe, but that's not what everyone has.

I've just stared studying at an overseas university where they do seem to be moving mostly towards online stuff, especially in areas like computer science, and I'm not particularly looking forward to it.

Ben said...

Thanks for your comments. Very valid points made re: current availability of digitally published information, and lack of DRM platform and protocol. How long until these issues are resolved, however?

And yes Deborah, I think it's fair to say that I'm talking hypothetically - I've got no background in library management but I do know what's happening in information technology, and I'm acutely aware that advances in tech, and the volumes and frequency of information being published, are accelerating exponentially.

My primary point is: here is a capital asset which needs to be restored and rebuilt, and needs to last > 5-10 (?) years to support the learning activities of the university (and, for other libraries, the community).

Are proponents of using paper-based learning capable of arguing that that a library based upon paper books will deliver the best value for money this year, in 2 years, 5 years or in 10 years' time? I'm not convinced...

My opinion (perhaps more neophile than most) is that paper-based books, if they are not already, are rapidly on the way to being to being obselete and a historical curiosity. Investing in a modern future-facing digital solution would be a better decision than building a soon-to-be museum piece.

Hopefully it's worth raising the question... ;-)

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