I am now on sabbatical and have been working recently in the Judaic Studies Reading Room at the Jewish and National University Library at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The room could use some renovating and it gets a little crowded and stuffy, but I had forgotten what a pleasure it is to work there. About 70% of the resources that I need to do my writing are in that room; 5% I can instantly get online; 5% are available in the next room; and 15% I can order up to the room from the closed stacks (they arrive in less than an hour). 5% are more difficult to attain. This concentration of resources allows me to be maximally productive. I often move from book to book in unpredictable ways, following up footnotes and references. It is not unusual for me to consult upwards of 50 different resources in the course of a day, if I can get my hands on them.
Shortly before I started my sabbatical, I was asked to attend a faculty focus group at our library at Brown. Brown is facing the same challenges as many libraries in America: the costs of materials (especially journals) are rising at a time of constrained budgets; physical space is finite; and book use, as measured by check-outs and requests from storage, are decreasing. To many administrators, these factors all point in the direction of reducing book purchases in favor of increasing digital resources and putting more books into remote storage.
At Brown, I can also obtain about 95% of the library materials that I need, but I would estimate that for 50% or more of them I need to wait at least a day, and often a week. The changes that the library is flirting with would further tilt those numbers. I would more or less be able to do what I do now, but slower. I understand the library’s challenges, but I, and other humanities scholars, would be the ones who primarily take it on the chin. It would directly impact my productivity and, to be crude, that comes out of the university’s prestige and my pocket.
I do not fear the move toward the digital; I have already invested in it as both as consumer and producer. But for the time being, printed materials matter, and the best places to produce new knowledge in the humanities will be the ones that recognize that.