The digital creates interest in the physical

Carla Montori spoke about the Google digitization initiative at the University of Michigan at the LIBER Think Tank on the future value of the book artefact and the future value of digital documentary heritage [pdf]. She reported an interesting finding: experience of the digital version of an item is creating demand for the physical item. One can imagine various reasons for this. For some folks and for some uses immersive reading may not be congenial in the digital environment. There may also be cases where there is interest in the original artifact. And there may be other reasons.
It does mean that it is unlikely that digital materials will be a simple substitution for print. This has implications for physical collection management. However, this does not necessarily mean that libraries retain all that they digitize on local shelves. It does mean that what is digitized may have to be quickly accessible within some framework of predictable and reliable delivery, whether that is local, or, increasingly, within a shared context.
Update: Check out the comment by John Wilkin. In my own experience, which is nothing more than that ;-), I will sometimes go to a print version having come across something first on NetLibrary or Google Book Search. It will be interesting to see what behaviors do emerge when we begin to have data to work with.

2 thoughts on “The digital creates interest in the physical”

  1. I’m glad to see Carla and others talking about this, since it has long been a hobby horse of mine. In my talk at the RLG Discovery to Delivery Symposium (see I used the example of the Mona Lisa (admittedly not a book, but it makes a great point). Depictions of that work of art are absolutely everywhere, and yet it remains the top destination of visitors to the Louvre Museum. I really don’t think we can assume that our work is done once we provide a digital copy of a book — rather, we will if anything be furthered challenged in the management of our print collections given increased interest in them.

  2. I’m afraid this factoid has taken on a life of its own. When I first started hearing this notion articulated, it was pretty clearly a mis-remembering of information that was reported in use of Making of America. In the late 1990’s, Michigan people like Wendy Lougee, Mark Sandler, and I began talking about the way that little-used print volumes were heavily used online. That is, after not circulating in 20 years, this collection of books was seeing millions of monthly uses online. To my dismay, we began hearing others (even Michigan people) representing this as online access driving increased interest in the print. This was simply not true: the print was not being used or requested more as a consequence of being online. In fact, we withdrew nearly all of the print volumes that we digitized in Making of America, and we did not see thwarted demand for those print volumes. The factoid was a sloppy transformation of “though no uses in print, many uses online” to “many online uses created many uses in print,” and as much as we tried to rectify this, it continued to live.

    Carla’s presentation at LIBER discussions has this idea migrating into another realm—the Google digitization effort. Again, at Michigan we haven’t analyzed circulation data for this fact and have nothing to support this assertion. Anecdotally, it sure seems like we’re seeing an increase in demand for in-copyright materials that have been digitized, which of course only makes sense because those titles have limited accessibility. That’s a different matter, of course, and says something entirely different than the point made at LIBER. I could never argue that complete fulltext online access does not drive use of print, but at Michigan we’re just not seeing it.

    On an ironic side note, we’ve put all of the Making of America volumes back into print and they’re available through Amazon and other venues. We are seeing reasonably large sales of these volumes despite their online availability. Those titles that are the most popular online are typically not the most popular in print, and vice versa. This, again, seems like a different phenomenon—not that online access stimulates use of the print, but that some things that are online work better in print.

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