Links and chains

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Hereford Cathedral Chained Library, Hereford, England

I came across an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on St. Leo’s University, whose library is investing heavily in electronic titles for its students. This makes sense for them because a large number of their students are off-campus (and perhaps even off-continent). The article didn’t go into much detail on how students would actually read these books (other than to mention “computers, smartphones, and iPads”). I expect that most of the interaction with the books will consist of clicking on links in a browser, without the benefit of interfaces for active reading.

What intrigued me more were the comments, particularly the one by zenbrarian, who pointed out that the way these e-libraries are typically implemented is by the library obtaining electronic access to titles without actually hosting the books themselves. It makes sense if a library doesn’t want to get too deeply into the IT business, but it does mean that the publish not only retains the right to jack up the fees at will, but also maintains control over who gets to read the books.

Specifically, electronic collections may restrict inter-library loan capabilities relied on by many libraries. This can increase costs to libraries because each now has to pay forĀ  more books. The commenter made the analogy to medieval libraries whose books were chained to the shelves to prevent them from being stolen.

This image caught my imagination, and led me to discover a collection of library photographs, including at least one of chained books. I like books and architecture, and thus it was doubly-pleasurable to look at these images.

Looking at these libraries made me realize just how little effort we spend on aesthetics when designing our digital library interfaces. I was also struck by how poorly the list of images on that site conveys the grandeur of those spaces. Crammed together (not unlike books on a tightly packed shelf), these images cry out for more space, so that each image can be enjoyed without being jostled by its neighbors.

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