from Dr. Charles Inskip, Programme Director, MA Library and Information Studies,
University College London
This paper discusses the key issues around a paperless, global information environment focusing on the idea that a balance between physical and digital formats is not only more realistic but also more appropriate. The discussions consider the issues recognising the imperfections and unreliabilities of electronic media within the context of their affordances of widespread access and importance in the preservation process. The author recognises the impact of market forces on the process of digitisation and discusses quite clearly the tensions arising from these in the perpetuation and sharing of knowledge. The importance of information literacy is clearly identified in relation to the adoption of online materials and the complexity of supporting the development of these literacies within the complex information environment is linked effectively to a consideration role of the library and information professional within this context. Throughout the paper the author draws from relevant current examples from professional and academic literature and makes a very coherent argument that the optimum information environment in today’s context recognises a balance between the physical and the digital.
In the BiblioTech of San Antonio, Texas, books have been replaced with digital collections: the transition towards paperless information environments has already begun. But the pace of change may be too fast for libraries to adapt to and still maintain their commitment to collection preservation and universal access to lifelong learning. While paperless, global information environments are desirable in an idealised form, the feasibility of current models suggests that a compromise – neither fully print nor fully digital – may be the best solution.
There are several spheres of librarianship that benefit enormously from the time and space saved by the digital shift. Paperless environments correlate with a trend in collection development away from ownership and towards access, and with collaborative collection development, which enables users to view electronic items remotely or order books to their local library. Online environments may also be the saviour of paper and its ancestors. Digitisation of rare books and manuscripts allow a global community to study their contents whilst reducing the objects' handling and thereby rescuing pages and bindings from exposure to damage.
Technology also provides a much-needed solution to storage limitations, as paperless content allows libraries to simultaneously share more knowledge and diminish their physical footprint. Geographical concerns can render this problem urgent: the University of California was prompted to switch print periodicals to e-journals when seismic shifts threatened the campus libraries. Radical strategies have been proposed in response to the dilemma of limited space in a publication boom: David Lewis, Dean of Indiana University Library, suggests that it would be cheaper to let users keep 'borrowed' items in a 'Give Away Library' than pay for the cost of storing them on shelves.
However, the transition towards paperless, global information environments has already encountered several setbacks. The legislation around electronic legal deposit in the UK stipulates that readers may only access materials “on library premises controlled by the deposit library”. In practice, this means that readers lose all the benefits of an electronic copy: the text is limited to a dedicated PC and copyright terminals are often ill-equipped to fulfill the needs of disabled users, either in their physical location or in the restricted format of the deposited document.
Critiquing another instance of poorly-executed digitisation, UC Berkeley Professor Paul Duguid enumerates the pitfalls of the Google Books project and a flawed monopoly on digital migration, proving that the online Tristam Shandy is not an adequate substitute for the paper copy because there are numerous pages missing or obscured. He concludes that the process of rendering an information environment paperless overlooks librarians' expertise and the recalcitrance of the codex form:
It may be Google's technicians, and not librarians, who are the great romanticisers of the book. [...] They fail to see what librarians know: books can be obtuse, obdurate, even obnoxious things. […] [T]hey don't submit equally to a standard shelf, a standard scanner, or a standard ontology.
The failings of this project make a good case study, suggesting that there is more to access than simple availability and that, if stewardship is overlooked, content 'lives an in inchoate mass – often more frustrating to users than no accessibility at all.'
Online sites expire if they are not maintained. I was unable to source an article by the Taiga forum quoted in Lewis' 2013 article because the link had reverted to a Hostgator holding space. Bradley Daigle, director of digital curation at the University of Virginia, describes this problem as 'link rot' and remarks that 'unreliable dependencies' in the digital realm pose a problem for academic citation. Before our global information environment can become truly paperless, it must find a way to retain knowledge beyond its immediate access point.
Preservation poses the most significant challenge to a complete technological revolution. In 1998, Terry Kuny, who was then Technology Architect at the National Library of Canada, announced 'A Digital Dark Ages' in which digital media evolve so fast that products are quickly outdated and 'trapped in an obsolete format'. Kuny links the problem of technological transience to the free market 'because product obsolescence is often key to corporate survival in a competitive capitalist democracy. This phenomenon is worsened by privatisation, and reveals that the technology business is perhaps fundamentally at odds with the library project: ideological constraints prevent a highly competitive and profiteering industry from fully cohering with a public body that aims for longterm preservation and the exchange of goods and knowledge outside of a monetary system.
From the corporate to the individual level, electronic archives change author behaviour and risk the survival of textual ephemera. Where paper production creates a 'waste' archival product at every stage of drafting, most contemporary writers no longer save their early drafts. In paperless composition, the final version of a work overwrites early sketches and plans. Conversely, there are aspects of correspondence that many would choose to hide from posterity, but online auto-archiving obscures the means of curating one's own effects. By 2065, Facebook will have more data on dead users than alive, and recent iPhone updates of the Gmail application default to 'archive' rather than 'delete' as an option. In its earliest incarnations, Gmail did not include a 'delete' button.
Potential solutions to obsolescence, including digital forensics or digital scholarship, rely on retaining antiquated technological equipment in order to capture data from physical media. A third option, migration, involves transforming the original content so that it remains readable, if not in its original format. One migration strategy is to print a hard copy of the document. Likewise, the trend towards just-in-time rather than just-in-case acquisition, combined with the technological advances in Electron Beam Melting (EBM) printers, could mean that libraries will begin printing-on-demand in-house, publishing books in response to patron requests. In these scenarios, digital information environments are forced to return to paper to ensure their own survival.
If digital developments struggle to account for the preservation side of scholarship, they pose a much more exciting threat to the status quo of academic research. With the limitations of paper-based publishing overcome, digital environments could move away from a closed selection process towards an open-access learning culture. As Lewis notes, 'traditional scholarly structures and practices are elitist and based on exclusion. The processes and practices of today's digital world assume inclusion and only work well when it is a core value.' Scholars are now encouraged to make their work accessible, and funding bodies require researchers to submit all publications to an institutional repository. The dynamism of online environments also has the potential to alter radically the binary between author and reader, and to formulate a user-generated system of knowledge-creation in interactive forums.
Online information can extend accessibility on a worldwide platform: there is a correlation between paperless and global environments. Collaborative collection development for e-resources means that many users can fulfill their information needs from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection and an institutional subscription. However, this point can easily be overstated, and it is important to consider the effects of power cuts and paywalls before declaring paperless information environments universally accessible.
A paperless library necessitates a high level of information literacy if all users are to have equal access to resources. In the UK, this function became all the more crucial when the 'Digital by Default' policy moved access to social welfare online, and citizens were forced into a paperless exchange with government agencies. But the country still contains great pockets of digital exclusion, betraying a direct correlation between Internet use, fiscal wealth, cultural capital and infrastructural reliability, as manifest in the heat maps produced by Go-On UK. Each of these social constraints requires the support of the librarian as a 'blended' or 'hybrid' professional.
Knowledge dissemination has been recognised by the UN as a global priority since the 2006 UNESCO declaration that 'Information literacy […] is a basic human right in a digital world and promotes social inclusion in all nations.' This statement corresponds with the utopian vision of paperless information environments – hypothetically, resource limitations around the world can be overcome if libraries move out of physical spaces and into an omnipresent ether.
There are moral benefits to technological environments. Sociologist Bruno Latour refers to nonhuman technology as the 'social masses who make up our morality'. Paper does not carry the same incentive – it can be easily ignored. Library rules insisting that books be charged to an account before leaving the premises rely entirely on a user's memory and virtue. But an alarmed door and RFID-tagged books trigger a siren whenever a user attempts to break this rule – a reminder if they have forgotten, and an alert to staff if their intention was theft. With ebooks, the system can be programmed so that it is impossible to borrow without registration, and the ebook will expire remotely when the allocated period is up. There are still many ways in which human misconduct can harness technological means, for example in malicious software, and digital automation is better at keeping human fallibility in check to avoid error than preventing willful wrongdoing
At this point, the desirability of paperless information environments becomes an ideological question of how a library should approach its task: whether a more efficient policing system is appealing, or whether the establishment of trust is worth more than the occasional and inevitable instances of breached rules. And while digital monitoring might prevent accidental violations, the high frequency of pirated material online suggests that humans are just as capable of deliberately breaking digital regulations as paper ones. Technology offers the benefit of increased surveillance, but efficiency may come at the cost of a delicate covenant between library and borrower, which relies on a system of mutual trust and a level of benign neglect that suits the imperfections of paper.
Technology operates as a social force, and can be harnessed for different means. Automation – low cost and high speed – can be used as a tool for austerity in the current political climate, endangering the role of the librarian. As cuts to library services risk jobs and information spaces, the digital realm can be abused as an excuse for a personless as well as paperless environment. An increase of information production should enhance the role of the library professional, rather than threaten their crucial role as intermediary, educator and facilitator.
Information environments are not static, and the push towards a paperless library could promote an epistemological revolution in which the importance of the archive diminishes in favour of the generation of new ideas. Such a change of priorities would radically alter the sectors of librarianship and academia. However, there remain fundamental weaknesses in the longevity of digital alternatives to paper and, at this stage, a carefully managed hybrid learning environment may be the most feasible and desirable alternative. There are aspects of hybridity that do not work well: when dynamic access is constrained by copyright issues, or when preservation requires digital media to be duplicated in hard copy. More effective hybrid solutions include the conversation of rare paper materials by making their digital counterparts more accessible, and online collective collection development expanding library stock whilst saving their limited storage space.
Technology's tendency towards access over ownership has the potential to fulfill a truly democratic pedagogy, to deliver social inclusion, lifelong learning, and local access to global collections. A paperless global information environment is desirable as far as it increases access, but infeasible while legal constraints, business dynamics, and political ideology conspire to limit its suitability for the library as an equal-access repository, and for the librarian as facilitator and steward of these ideals.