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Library Protesters to Ohio State U.: Digital’s OK, but Save Our Books!

About two dozen faculty members and students, clutching signs that read “Don’t Gut the Library” and “Keep our books on campus,” picketed the administration building at Ohio State University yesterday, The Columbus Dispatch and the Associated Press reported. The protesters were upset over the culling of printed materials—275,000 books and other works, they said—from the university’s libraries between 2005 and 2008. Another 55,000 items have been discarded in the past four months, according to the picketers.

“What people here are concerned about is the idea of a research collection, much of which will never be digitalized,” John Burnham, a professor of history and one of the protesters, told The Chronicle in an e-mail message. He said that researchers in disciplines like African studies “are particularly concerned” that the materials they work with will not be available in digital form.

“It’s true that a great deal has been opened up online and more will be,” the professor observed. But “the currently faddish business model” means that there is less and less physical space for books, and less opportunity for the kind of scholarly browsing that results in “serendipitous discoveries.”

Will we see other protests, on other campuses, about the streamlining of research-library holdings as the great digital shift accelerates, budgets shrink, and storage space becomes ever tighter? “The factors that led to the protest are those that face any great library now—and the research personnel who use the library,” Mr. Burnham said.

In a telephone interview with The Chronicle, Joe Branin, OSU’s director of libraries, said that the institution remains committed to its print collections. The university’s main library will reopen in August after a three-year renovation, and it will still contain more than a million volumes. But the book depository the university opened two decades ago for library overflow is almost full. The recent culling has targeted duplicate items “so we can make more room for material moving in,” he said.

“There’s a consolidation of print collections around the world. I don’t think that can be changed,” Mr. Branin said. “Keeping large collections is not inexpensive. And we want to keep a large collection, but we want it to be a useful, rational collection, not just whatever has been accumulated over hundreds of years.”

Tight space isn’t the only force at work. Researchers’ behavior is shifting away from print. “All the data that we gather indicate that there’s a growing preference for online digital access to information,” Mr. Branin said. That means, for instance, that it’s no longer economically feasible to maintain separate departmental libraries in journalism, business, theater arts, and social sciences. He understands that “for some faculty and students, that’s very emotionally upsetting.”

Not everything should be in a local collection, he believes. OSU is working with a statewide consortium of libraries to figure out how to make best use of one another’s holdings. “For us as research librarians—and I said this to the protesters yesterday—our goal is to try to preserve the record of scholarship,” he said. “We have to come up with a better system nationally and internationally. There are just so many inefficiencies in the way we’ve been doing it.” —Jennifer Howard

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