library books research

Photo licensed under Creative Commons Courtesy of Jeffrey Beall

Last week, my son was at camp at Villanova University, and I spent a day on campus, in the Library. I’m researching a new book project, and i thought I’d take a look at journals I might not be able to get online, and see if there were any books I may have missed on the subject matter.

It’s been a few years since I’ve been to a college library, and a lot has changed.  The first floor looked more like a student union.  There were open tables and computers versus stacks of journals and reference material that used to be prominently relegated to the front of a library.  I had to get a pass to use the computer, and then look up the Library website to access the card catalog.

Many of the journals I wanted to review were now in digital format.  Instead of  getting a hard copy and having to photocopy articles or take notes, I could download a PDF and then print it for a cost directly to a printer in the library, or simply download a PDF and email it to myself.  This seemed a bit weird to me, that I had to physically be present at a library to access to digital copies of journals they subscribed to, to email them to myself to read at home.  I understand this is all about finances in the end and making sure journals have paid gateways and restricted use, but it seemed a little off.    I’m not sure what the solution is here except perhaps I should be able to see an index of a Journal online from home, and maybe pay a college librarian to “pull” the articles and email them to me instead, for a fee of some sort.  But then you get into issues of who should librarians be working for- the University or anybody who wants information, and how do you triage that- and I’m not sure there’s a good answer there, either.

But my most telling moment was going up to look at some books in the stacks – about, and you can laugh here- digital learning.  I thought I wanted to see one particular book, but as is usually the case, most of the books along the stacks were of more interest, and I would not have thought to look for them otherwise.  I found great books on the philosophy of education, the roots of literacy, problem based learning and more.  I pulled about 12 books to look at, and sat down, immersing myself in the subjects.  I pulled out my iPad and went to Amazon, after finding a couple of the books I knew I was going to need to spend more time with.  Some were  easy to get and relatively cheap.  I bought a few right away.  Some had digital versions available, but even Kindle versions were $35 to $60 dollars, so I’m a little more leery to purchase these outright and may come back to read the few chapters I need to, secretly hoping they were available for a chapter by chapter purchase or available in iBooks, which allows a lot more annotation and note taking than the Kindle app does, making Kindle inferior for this sort of academic research scenario.

I was surprised how great it felt to be back in a library again, and how much I learn by the ‘neighborhood’ of books on esoteric topics that teach me much more than my initial boolean search ever would have shown me.  I value the in-library experience more than I thought, and realize the value, even in keeping things like textbooks and student theses on the shelf, no matter how popular or unpopular they might be.  We need older knowledge.  We need diverse knowledge, and not just that that is voted upon or popular by people outside academia.  Being able to deep dive in areas I didn’t even know I might need to know about is invaluable, and something I can’t get from at home research alone.

I wonder how my kids will learn to do college and professional level academic research.  I wonder if they will understand the different tools and skill sets needed, and how each tool brings its own burden and benefits with it.  How even good boolean search skills may lead you astray, and sometimes gist and serendipty are as important as immediate gratification.  How the thoroughness of research requires more than looking past the third page in a second google or Bing query.

Curiously enough, Time Magazine had an article today about the bookless library.  These counterpoints I just experienced are described as well, so my experience and conflict between the old and new library aren’t unique.  I just hope we develop  “virtual” bookshelves in the bookless library, like in iBooks or LibraryThing where you could see the books, and then select their digital counterparts, because there is something about the browse versus directed search that works better during research and when you are looking for ideas and answers to perhaps ill-defined problems.  It’s a gist problem, where we need not exact directions, but more a sense of neighborhood and fuzzier logic.    I hope these changes in digital libraries also mean that there will still be collections of esoteric books on niche subjects, college theses and the obscure protected and displayed along with the more popular.  We need these same ideas to still be shared and available even if they flunk the “most used and popular” and hence, perhaps seen by some as less worthy of spending the money and resources of making these tomes digital.  We are developing new ways to make knowledge we may need but aren’t sure is immediately valuable more obscure.  And it’s the work of others who might be onto something even they aren’t sure of, that we use bits of to build the next great invention or research project or new (insert your thing here).

The Library and its evolution will change college and how we look for knowledge.  But I hope books and the obscure continue to populate, since its knowledge on the fringes that always leads to the next big thing anyway.  If we only swim in the mainstream, we can miss what we really need to know.