Fourteen years ago I purchased a first-edition copy of On Liberty, John Stuart Mill’s classic 1859 defence of individual freedom. I remember the purchase since I also needed a new computer. The computer cost $1,200. The book cost $900. My bank account had less than $1,500 in it. So, even though I really couldn’t afford to, I used my credit card and bought them both.
Today the computer is long gone. When I finally replaced it with a newer model, its resale value was zero. In contrast, my $900 copy of On Liberty today retails for over $6,000, an increase of over 560 percent.
There’s a lesson here. As libraries struggle to keep pace with the rapid rate of technological change, acquisition budgets have become more and more focused on electronic subscriptions. This is inevitable. Online books and journals are superior in many ways to old-fashioned print editions. But in some respects, especially for purposes of scholarship, nothing can replace the traditional book. Nothing can replace having direct access to the first published expression of an author’s intentions.
So what should universities do? Should they continue to buy both traditionally bound and electronically downloadable books and journals? Or, given shrinking acquisition budgets, should they give up purchasing the traditional book altogether?
We’ve found ourselves in this situation once before. During the 15th century – shortly after Johannes Gutenberg introduced the use of movable type in Europe – traditional hand-copied codices and manuscripts began to disappear.
For centuries, copyists had laboured in scriptoria, copying and decorating books by hand. In addition to their famous illuminated manuscripts, they also made cheaper, non-illuminated copies for university students to rent. The practice wasn’t so different from the buy-back programs many university bookstores have for textbooks today.
But once mechanical printing began to spread, not only did scriptoria begin to disappear, so too did the hand-copied books. Vellum and other forms of parchment from older books were sometimes recycled. But just as often, hand-copied books were simply read until they fell apart. Then they were used as fuel and burned. Why keep and treasure an old, fragile, hand-written copy when a newer printed version is readily available and superior in so many ways?
Today, only a handful of libraries around the world still retain significant collections of these pre-industrial materials – the British Library, the Bodleian Library, the Vatican Library. Yet it is to these libraries and others like them that scholars from around the world inevitably return, year after year, to do their work. As Vancouver rare-books specialist Ralph Stanton reminds us, “Today good university libraries all around the world each have enormous print and electronic holdings. Only the greatest have the manuscript originals.”
Now imagine being able to go back in time to collect an armload of hand-copied codices from before the days of Gutenberg. Given the opportunity, some of us would want to save an illuminated psalter or bible. Others might save a book by Augustine or Ockham or Dante or Aquinas. But regardless of whether we were drawn to authors such as Chaucer or Anselm, or to more pedestrian documents such as trade manifestos or bank invoices, such a collection would teach us a great deal, not just about the age in which they were produced but about where the modern world has come from.
Now, imagine being able to bring these books back to the 21st century and donating them to your local university library. Almost overnight, it would become home to one of the most sought-after research collections in the world.
This make-believe scenario sounds implausible, yet it is precisely the situation libraries find themselves in today. Librarians who go into the marketplace to collect the last paper copies of many 20th-century books will soon have collections that are absolutely unique. Rather than owning easily manipulated, and hence easily falsifiable, electronic copies, they will have the originals.
When second-hand book stores are closing almost by the day, which universities are going to have the foresight to preserve the thousands of books that seem to be almost without value? In a time of austerity, when a single new university building might cost 60 or 70 million dollars, which governments will have the courage to set aside enough money to take advantage of an opportunity that comes along only once every 500 years?
Only time will tell. But decisions need to be made soon – 10 years from now will be too late.
Andrew Irvine is a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia.