Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Which Would You Choose?

A book landed on my desk the other day to review for possible repair or replacement: Vestiges of the natural history of creation, by Robert Chambers, New York : Harper, [18??]. (Our spine label says 1847, but that appears to be pure conjecture.) The cover was in tatters, but the paper was in excellent condition and would easily hold up to rebinding.

I'm usually not sentimental about books as artifacts, but the fact that this particular title to some extent blazed the trail for Darwin's Origin of Species did arrest my attention. Chambers published this work anonymously because of the controversy that he expected upon its publication. A quick check of Google Book Search revealed three full-text editions available online.

The question is whether to spend the money to rebind the book and keep it in the collection or whether to withdraw the book because it is now freely available online.

This question is not unique to theologial libraries. Library literature gives ample testimony to the stresses that all libraries experience with the adoption of new technologies and formats. Resistance, synthesis, whole-hearted adoption -- this cycle of adjustment seems to be repeated now as quickly as our computers obsolesce. Theological libraries, though, may be a little behind the technological curve, and we are just starting to come to terms with some of the changes that have been more widely adopted in other fields like law or medicine. I find myself still suspicious of the gulf between the endurance of physical artifacts and that of the ubiquitous but ephemeral pixel.

This is not to say that I am a Luddite who must surround myself with the smell and feel of paper. Nor is it to say that digital technology is of the Devil (though I am sure that Hell is automated). Historians and those in the humanities often have similar sensibilities, while many people immersed in the digital world discover a new craving for printed matter. (See The Prestigious Inconvenience of Print, by Edward Tenner in the 3/9/07 Chronicle Review, v.53 no.27 p.B7.) Even in theological libraries thick with the dust of brittle paper items, most of us are well over the card catalog by now. Truth be told, we like being able to locate the books in our libraries, something that was much more difficult to do with a card catalog. Keyword searching hath its merits.

So, what to do with the book? Ownership vs. access; print vs. online; physical presence vs. digital distribution--being a theological librarian does not give me any hidden wisdom to easily know if there is a best option to choose. Which would you choose?

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