Print Redux?

Years ago, organizations like LOCKSS, Portico, and the Internet Archive emerged with a mission to preserve access to vulnerable digital materials. We have more recently seen digital materials utilized to preserve access to physically inaccessible print collections. The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, with lockdowns and closures of libraries’ physical spaces, dramatically curtailed access to print collections. In response, HathiTrust launched a new Emergency Temporary Access Service (ETAS) that offered temporary access to copyrighted digital material to communities served by libraries that held print versions in their collections. In this way, print collections became accessible through virtualization.

Adapting print to the pandemic

Some of the earliest adaptations library staff made to the conditions brought about by the pandemic involved innovative ways to re-connect patrons to the print collection. OCLC Research’s New Model Library project conducted interviews with library leaders from around the world to gather their perspective on their library’s response to the pandemic’s new operational context, as well as their vision for library futures as a result of changing practices and environments. The study found that 25 of 29 library leaders interviewed during April-July 2020 reported that all in-person services had been suspended as a consequence of the pandemic. But by early July 2020, 12 of the libraries had re-opened some in-person services, and of these, the most frequently cited were circulation and pickup of physical items, including new “curbside” pickup services.

The importance of restoring access to print materials was also underscored by the launching of the first phase of the REopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM) project in Spring 2020. A partnership between OCLC, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and Battelle, REALM investigated good practices for mitigating the spread of the COVID-19 virus while handling circulating physical materials – like print – in the library collection. And access to print was further improved as many libraries instituted or expanded mail-to-user services, where physical items from their own collections and even those borrowed via inter-library loan (ILL) were shipped to users’ home addresses. 

Efforts like ETAS, REALM, and even curbside pick-up of physical materials highlight the continuing value library communities place on access to the print collection, and the disruption that occurs when that connection is severed. Yet before the pandemic, a very different perception of print collections seemed to be taking hold. Many library staff were seeking strategies to “manage down” their print collections, evidenced by efforts to move large portions of print collections to off-site storage, and the emergence of shared print initiatives as a means of distributing responsibility for retaining and preserving the print record while helping to relieve local space constraints. Print collections were seen as consuming scarce physical space within the library building that could be re-purposed for higher value activities. More broadly, print was seen as a legacy of the past, and not where many libraries were imagining their future.

Today, with the pandemic experience fresh in our minds, there is a chance to take a new look at the future of print collections. A good starting point for this re-assessment is the observation that access to print collections was in fact keenly missed during the pandemic, both in academic and public libraries. The findings of the New Model Library study showed that library leaders recognized that print collections were undergoing change – not just because of the pandemic, but also because of trends re-shaping library collections that were in place well before COVID-19 entered the picture. But an important countervailing message we heard from library leaders was that print collections still were highly valued by the communities academic and public libraries serve. This point was thrown into stark relief when the pandemic disrupted access to print materials.

What the pandemic told us about print collections

The trends that were impacting print collections before the pandemic – e.g., space pressures, low usage rates, budgetary re-allocations toward expensive licensed e-content – have not disappeared, and print collections will continue to be adapted to new circumstances. But in speaking to library leaders involved in the New Model Library study, several points emerged that merit consideration as library staff continue to re-shape the future of print collections:

  • The pandemic was a good reminder that there are segments of the community who very much prioritize print materials as their preferred mode of access. In this sense, the shift to e-resources necessitated by the pandemic – e.g., through the HathiTrust ETAS, or through ramped-up provision of ebooks and other digital resources – will be seen by these community members not as a more convenient alternative, but as a necessary but temporary measure until physical access to the print collection could be fully restored.
  • The print collection is an important safety net for members of the community who do not have access to the layer of technology needed to support access and use of e- and digital resources. Not everyone is equipped with the hardware, software, connectivity, and digital literacy needed to effectively navigate and use virtualized collections; for these library users, the print collection is irreplaceable as a means of accessing books and other resources. For example, one library leader we spoke to described how library staff made special efforts to get physical materials to people without online access by bringing them to schools and shelters, or even placing them in food bank hampers.
  • The print collection will not disappear, but the pandemic prefigured ways that modes of access and use may change significantly. As the pandemic unfolded, library staff found new ways to connect patrons to print collections without entering the library premises, and some of these innovations may persist even as library spaces have since re-opened. For example, staff may take on a greater role in serving as an on-site intermediary between the user and the print collection, utilizing communication channels such as videoconferencing to aid in browsing or searching the print collection. User-driven acquisition programs may expand, with materials ordered and shipped directly to individuals’ homes and offices before being added to the library collection.

Print collections and library futures

All of this is not to say that the old perception of libraries as “book warehouses” should be resurrected. The New Model Library interviews included many instances where library leaders emphasized the competing claims on scarce library space – a point library staff were keenly aware of long before the pandemic. And the scaled-up provision and usage of e- and digital resources will likely persist even as the pandemic recedes, as users become more accustomed to and proficient in the use of virtual options. This in turn may work to diminish circulation and ILL numbers for print materials, and at the same time entrench significant budgetary re-allocations away from print to absorb the cost of licensing online materials.

Libraries will need to strike an appropriate balance between providing print collections in physical spaces and e- and digital collections in virtual spaces. And this must be informed step by step by the needs and expectations of library communities, which have undergone their own process of transformation as a result of the pandemic experience.

But even as library staff strike this balance, a key axiom underpinning the decision-making will be that print collections still are valued resources – both as a preferred mode of access for some, and as a safety net for those without access to technology resources. The means by which individuals access and use the print collection may change – and in some cases, even leverage virtual environments – but the importance of the library’s print collection will not. As library staff prepare to shape the New Model Library that works best for them, it probably is safe to say that the print collection will continue to have a significant role in library futures.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to my colleagues Brittany Brannon, Lynn Connaway, Brooke Doyle, Ixchel Faniel, Dennis Massie, and Merrilee Proffitt for helpful feedback on this post!