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February 18, 2003
The Internet as University Library

Okay this is another quota posting. Remember the rule here? Something (anything) at least once every Monday to Friday. So far I've kept to this rule, and I'm proud of that. Sometimes I feel like some grouchy old pedagogue shambling into class, coughing and wheezing, and glowering at the terrified pupils all trembling behind their ancient, inkstained desks. But I'm here, so pay attention. You, put that chewing gum away. Simpson, before you leave today, write out a hundred times: "UNDERWARE IS NOT WORN OUTSIDE" (That was last Monday, I think. I love those lines Bart does. Recent favourite: "I AM NOT A DENTIST".)

So, the inexorable decline of the University Library. Tragedy or what? Where would I be at times like these (i.e. midnight rapidly approaching) without education.guardian.co.uk?

The university where I currently teach has, I think, made a constructive move towards solving the problems of the decaying university library. Caltech (the California Institute of Technology) has a small student body of less than 1,000 undergraduates, some 800 graduate students and 250 or so professors. They are (just behind Harvard) the highest paid faculty in the country. The institute although it lost half a billion of its endowment in the recent stock market slump is very rich.

Traditionally, Caltech has spent lavishly on its library. Even the small cohort of humanists has prospered. Ask for a book, and it would be bought, accessioned and kept on open shelf. Recently, however, a major change of emphasis has occurred. Rather than store or keep printed materials, the library has moved to a system which prioritises delivery over storage and curatorship.

It is cheaper, the institute estimates, at around $10 a time, to get any book on interlibrary loan than to acquire, shelve, and circulate that book.

So too with articles in learned journals, which materials scientists are particularly hungry for. It makes more sense to order them in, like pizzas, rather than stoke up your own wood oven. Even if you let undergraduates in on the privilege the institute still comes out ahead. You order and it's in your mailbox next day (rush) in three days (normal). It's like rubbing a magic lamp and wishing the material into existence.

It says everything about university life that this character is actually proud that a piece of TEXT can be "delivered" golly gee!! NEXT DAY. (Or failing that, er, three days.) Pizzas? PIZZAS?!?!?! What century is this man living in? Perchance, the recently concluded one? And he's at the California Institute of Technology, for Jesus H. Christ's sake. I thought that in California they knew what computers can now do nowadays. Apparently not.

I'm not saying that printing off what is needed, anywhere anytime like, you know, you could print THIS, within about three minutes of me finishing the writing of it is going to be a total breeze to get organised. A scientific journal article probably has a few more potential glitches built into it than a blog posting, and especially a blog posting here (where I'm terrified of anything except words). And books, I do agree, do still have their uses. But couldn't Mr Caltech at least have made some allusion to the notion that treating texts like pizzas instead of like jars of fruit in your own larder is an interim measure until the obvious real answer is organised. (The nearest he gets to this is when he says that his university has "made a constructive move towards" solving the library problem, rather than actually claiming that the problem is already solved.)

The whole logic of the internet is that we all use the same giant filing cabinet, called: The Internet. Bloggers like me dream of the day when every reader pays a tenth of a cent to come here, but that will probably never happen. But surely if there's $10 available to get a book from some other University library, there are more than nickels and dimes to pay for members of the University to download academic books and articles.

I repeat. It's not that I'm saying that doing this is going to be easy to organise. I sense that the problem will be the "business model" and the negotiating with the old-line academic publishers. Once it's agreed how to do it, actually doing it will be relatively easy. What I'm saying is: it's obvious that this is what has to be organised. This is the question. And pizza delivery is not the answer.

Or to put it the other way, and approaching the problem from the other end, the future of academic text circulation is the system described in my piece about my friend Sean Gabb, only far, far more developed. Sean found free-to-download stuff that served his teaching purpose, and listed the links. The future of University teaching would make the entire contents of every University Library on earth available to everybody, everywhere.

And might that be the reason that Herr Doctor Professor Caltech might be uncomfortable with facing the obvious. Because, the logic of The Internet is that life at "universities" undergoes a whole lot more changes that just in the library.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:46 PM
Category: Technology

One University has got there already - the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has put its course materials online with free access
- see URL
Roll on the day when they all do this.


Comment by: Susan Godsland on February 19, 2003 10:51 AM

Sorry- don't know how these URL thingys work!
Here it is - http://ocw.mit.edu/index.html

Comment by: Susan Godsland on February 19, 2003 10:53 AM

Academic resources on the web are expanding hugely. http://tdnet.bodley.ox.ac.uk/ has a list of journals Oxford university members can access online. I'm sure it's similar for other universities.

Putting pay-per-view refereed journals on the web is mainly motivated by the possibility of boosting journal circulation, as far as I can tell. It isn't widening access beyond the ivory towers, really, and while academic job/tenure prospects are linked to the number of refereed publications a person has, peer-reviewed publication is likely to remain the norm, however much it delays (or kills) the communication of ideas.

Comment by: emma on February 22, 2003 07:13 PM

This process was just being fired up when I graduated from Tech, and believe me, not everybody was for it. I can't count the number of times that a late-night in the library provided the key to a killer homework set.

Comment by: Micah on April 17, 2003 07:36 AM
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