Libraries and Learning

Books (Still) in Print

January 10, 2017

People have a lot of odd beliefs about books. Nobody reads books anymore – except they do, overwhelmingly. Well, maybe old folks still read books, but not kids – though actually kids are much more likely to read books than people over 65. Well, but that’s because they’re reading ebooks. Nope. People of all ages still prefer print. The Gallup poll making the rounds is just the latest in a long string of surveys and studies that never can quite put an end to the commonly-held belief that “people don’t read books anymore.”

A lot of academic librarians, seeing their circulation figures decline since the internet was invented, have concluded that students don’t want books anymore. Some of the decline in circulation is thanks to the increasing convenience of finding scholarly articles. It wasn’t all that long ago that finding a book on the shelf was a lot easier than tracking down articles using indexes and abstracts, scraps of paper and a lot of patience. Some of the decline is because so many of the factual questions people used to look up in books can be answered with a Google search. And sometimes, a book placed on the shelf never leaves it. Rather than clutter up the library with books nobody wants, many librarians have started licensing collections of ebooks. Not only do they save space, they surely are more likely to be used. Except . . . maybe not.

My former colleague and pal Amy Fry has studied circulation of print and ebooks where she works at Bowling Green State University’s library. Looking at books acquired between 2008 and 2014, nearly three quarters of print acquisitions had been checked out at least once. Okay, not a hundred percent, but it’s a higher percentage than many librarians would guess. During that period, the library acquired (or licensed) twice as many ebooks as printed books, but the printed books added during those years were far more likely to be “checked out” – meaning circulated or reshelved versus clicked on to read a description, look at a table of contents, or download a chapter. It’s worth noting that two-thirds of BGSU students live off campus and the university offers a number of fully online degree programs.

I’ve resisted licensing loads of ebooks because I’m at a residential college, so getting to the library isn’t a hardship, and because I prefer the rights we have with print (such as being able to loan books to other libraries – interlibrary loan and ebooks don’t mix). We hand-pick our books with the help of faculty in the disciplines, and the books they want us to have are often not available in ebook packages. So far our students haven’t begged for digital editions, and though they take up less space, they aren’t cheaper. I’m grateful to have an in-depth analysis (and a significant literature review, to boot) to back up my hunch that ebook packages aren’t necessarily the way to go.

Here’s another library conundrum: given how much each academic library spends on their systems, we should be able to run an analysis like this fairly routinely – are our books being checked out? in which subject areas? – but no, it’s actually an incredible amount of work. We have the data, it’s just not joined up in a useful way. Hats off to those who make the effort.

Meanwhile, every December an English teacher at a rural high school about an hour’s drive away from my college brings a group of students to our campus to spend a morning at our library doing research for a paper. They don’t have much of a library at their school, and they haven’t had a librarian in years, ever since an entrepreneurial principal got all the students iPads and enough favorable notice for his innovation that he was able to move onto better things. It has been interesting to see what grabs these students, year after year. When full-text databases were new, they ran through reams of paper, printing things off. In the past five years or so the thing they want the most is books. Minnesota libraries are pretty well networked so we are able to check our books out to these students, who return them through their local public library. If those books were electronic, they couldn’t take them home. They couldn’t access them across the internet. They would only be able to use them while physically in the library.

There’s something very satisfying about seeing high school students stream out of our library with books in their arms. I’m glad we can still do that.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.