The Thinkers: Libraries finger way to a digital tomorrow
Gloriana St. Clair has been a library administrator for more than 25 years, but she bought a Kindle the first day they came out.
She loves Amazon's electronic reader, especially when she's reading in bed at night and she might otherwise be trying to manipulate an unwieldy 500-page fantasy novel.
Her Kindle love affair seems appropriate for a woman who has become a national leader in digitizing library material.
Dean of Carnegie Mellon University's libraries since 1998, Dr. St. Clair this year was named academic-research librarian of the year by the national Association of College Research Libraries and recently began a Web site called Research Showcase, offering free access to scientific papers authored by Carnegie Mellon faculty and students.
She doesn't believe digital books will replace the real thing anytime soon, but she feels we're definitely headed in that direction.
Amazon kick-started the process with its Kindle, followed this year by Barnes & Noble's Nook. The real breakthrough, though, is likely to come once Google irons out the legal kinks in its plan to offer the public up to 12 million books it has scanned and digitized.
It costs academic libraries about $1 a year to store every three-dimensional volume they own, so going digital has obvious cost advantages, she said.
Yet the real action right now at university libraries is digitizing archival collections and using digital versions of scientific and research journals.
Carnegie Mellon so far has digitized the archives of the late Sen. John Heinz, Nobel Prize winners Herbert Simon and Clifford Shull, and the Posner Family Collection of Fine and Rare Books, collected by alumnus and neon sign entrepreneur Henry Posner Sr.
The Posner collection has been an especially rich resource, Dr. St. Clair said. Besides containing about one-quarter of the world's most famous scientific books and treatises, it also includes an original Gutenberg Bible and an original copy of the Bill of Rights.
Digitizing the collection not only spares the rare manuscripts from being handled, but it means people can see them anytime from anywhere.
"The other campus advantage has been that our professors talk about these texts in class and can just bring them up on the computer. It's just such a win for us because it makes the collection available to everyone."
The other emerging digital frontier has been electronic versions of research journals.
Instead of buying paper copies of journals, Carnegie Mellon now often buys access rights to the digital versions.
That makes them easier to see and search through -- but it doesn't necessarily make them cheaper, she said, even though the publishers don't have to print nearly as many paper copies.
And that has become a major controversy in the world of academic research.
Universities already subsidize research journals in two ways. First, university libraries pay from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars annually for each research journal subscription, which allows the publishers to offer subscriptions to individuals at cut rates.
On top of that, most of the content is provided for free by professors and other researchers, and the referees who judge the acceptability of research are also volunteers.
There is not much negotiating room today with the organizations and scientific publishers that control the journals, she said, because researchers want the prestige of appearing in certain journals and the publishers "have a good for which no other good will substitute."
The bottom line: "Scientific publishing is one of the great cash cows of all time," she said. Reed Elsevier, the leading scientific publisher, reported operating profits last year of more than $2 billion.
But cracks are beginning to show in that facade, thanks to the open-access movement, which is trying to post research articles on the Internet for free.
PLoS, or the Public Library of Science, was established by leading scientists in 2000 with the stated goal of "opening the doors to the world's library of scientific knowledge by giving any scientist, physician, patient or student -- anywhere in the world -- unlimited access to the latest scientific research."
And Dr. St. Clair has added to that trend at Carnegie Mellon by setting up Research Showcase, which encourages the school's many researchers to post their scientific papers on its Web site.
The advantage of both initiatives is that papers can be located easily with Internet search engines, and then can be read or downloaded for free.
Ultimately, she believes it will be today's students who will change the world of academic publishing, because they already want to find what they need by searching on Google. They also will want their own work to be posted on Google as well, because to them, the biggest proof of success will be the number of hits they get.
"One of my students said recently, 'What did you do before you had Google?' And I said we had encyclopedias and reference books and we had to look in them for answers, and he said, 'But it must have taken a lifetime!' "
Students today "expect everything to be on Google. They're very impatient with even having to come inside the electronic library system and search for these things that we pay thousands and thousands of dollars for them to use."
While academic libraries are forging ahead with digitization, the story at many public libraries is different. While most have added digital catalogs and Internet access on library computers, their bread and butter is still hardcover books and, to a lesser extent, CDs and DVDs.
But even that will change in the years ahead as more people switch to digital reading, either on e-readers or iPhones and other devices, she thinks.
For the two major campuses in Oakland, the University of Pittsburgh is the big kid on the library block, she said, with about 6 million volumes.
Carnegie Mellon has about 1.1 million volumes, partly because the university is more specialized in what it teaches, but largely because of money.
There are also historic roots, she said. When industrialist Andrew Carnegie founded the school's forerunner, the Carnegie Institute of Technology, "the school's leaders went back to him and said, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a library?' and he said, 'Well, the Carnegie Library is right down the street.'
"And if you think back to that time, there were not so many books being published but that the Carnegie Library collection was probably pretty good. But now, what the Carnegie Library collects is entirely different from what we collect."
Even though she believes the future of libraries is digital, Dr. St. Clair is comfortable in both worlds.
She did her doctoral thesis on J.R.R. Tolkien -- before he was so popular, she notes -- and recently was reading his newly discovered book, "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun," on her Kindle.
But that made her want to reread a classic Norse epic, the Volsunga saga, which was only available in paperback in the translation she wanted.
Still, the Kindle is fast becoming her favorite, if only because "I do a lot of recreational reading, and I'm in three book groups, and so one of the great advantages of it is I don't have to dispose of the books at the end."
First Published December 7, 2009 12:00 am