Are libraries becoming digital… and is this a good thing?

I’ve been spending the last couple of days in the university library collecting information on various topics, but have only looked at one physical book. I’ve been downloading articles, chapters from ebooks, and occasionally even complete books.

The University of Manchester library spends 85% of its budget on digital content.

An ebook between print books on a shelf, by Maximilian Schönherr, 25 November 2011


For distance students, like I was when studying for my MA, this is good news because more and more material is available digitally, online. Also, in fields where there is a lot change and where new research and information is important, as in my field (Educational Technology), it is good to have access to the latest books in electronic format. Another advantage is that digital books and articles can easily be searched for keywords. And finally, for someone like me, who travels between and lives in different places, it is extremely practical to have all resources in digital format accessible anytime from all my devices.

That the University spends such a surprisingly high proportion of its budget on electronic resources might also reflect the fact that students increasingly use their computers to do research rather than the physical library and some “don’t know how to search a library  without a computer” (ECAR Research Study 6, 2005, p. 35).

(As an aside: the University of Manchester Library switched from the old card catalog system to a computer search system around 1991.)

But possibly there is also a more mundane reason, which is that universities are trying to save money. Although licences for ebooks can sometimes cost more than a physical book, libraries will not have to expand shelf space.

Manchester Central Library, St. Peter’s Square before the renovation (Source: Ricardo, 2010, Wikipedia Commons)


There are, of course, also downsides of this development. Whereas complete articles can be easily located and downloaded in PDF format, with ebooks things are more complicated. Firstly, because of copyright issues, there are restrictions on how many chapters or pages can be printed out or saved as PDF, although one can view the entire book online.

This leads to other problems. While one is also not allowed to photocopy an entire book, it is easy to browse through a physical book and photocopy individual pages. Browsing or reading ebooks can be more challenging. The University library uses different ebook service providers (which is possibly decided by the book publishers rather than the university?). Each has their own layout and functions. If they offer note-taking or bookmarking functions, one has to create an account for each separately. Highlighting or copying text is not possible.

And even within the same service provider’s website, access can differ depending on the licence agreement with the publisher. Sometimes, up to 20 or 60 pages can be printed out; at other times, only one chapter. Sometimes, all chapters can be download but there is a warning that one is allowed to download only one. Some books can be downloaded but only viewed with Acrobat Reader and only for a period of time, after which Acrobat will not open the file. And, finally, there are those that allow an entire book to download and keep access forever.

I hope that access and other services related to ebooks will be unified in the future and, thus, make the experience more user-friendly. But even then, I would not want a “bookless library”.