Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A painful problem of sizeable proportions

In nine months (almost exactly) I will finish my term as “Dean” and will return to being “Andrew” or “Andy” (depending on which stage of my life you met me and in which context). I will be enjoying (absolutely) two years of “administrative leave”, having accumulated an extra year by virtue of having held my position for ten years non-stop. There are all sorts of implications to this that go beyond losing having my phone answered and my mail opened for me. The one that has struck me rather forcibly is moving out of my office. As you might imagine, one of the perks of being Dean is having a nice office – I’ve been told by some my fellow deans that the view and the windows make this space some of the best on campus. In this office I was able to have a number of book shelves installed (probably going higher up the wall than the latest earthquake requirements would allow) to house a part of my book collection (mainly odds and ends, if the truth be told: my specialized collection on the Qur’an and its interpretation I have kept at home). Interspersed with those books are several shelves of learned journals which are supplemented by a collection at home as well (some stashed away in boxes). These journals are sets that, for the most part, start in the late 1970s.

The question I have been tangling with recently is what to do with the journals. This is a question which has always plagued academics (I remember a colleague in Calgary who would throw away one journal almost as soon as it arrived if there was nothing of value to him in it) because they seemingly accumulate so quickly and take up such a lot of space. Few of us can afford to have the issues bound into volumes, so years of cardboard magazine boxes are now a feature in many offices. They certainly are in mine.

But the question of storage space is not really the one that faces me. I can always buy more bookcases for home and make my home office look more like a real library with shelves running parallel across the room. The real issue is should I bother? Almost all of my journals are now available online, mostly through JSTOR, some through commercial providers. All of the articles are there, available at my fingertips, ready to be stored on my local computer as PDFs or printed out and filed away (another outmoded way of storage, a change to which is less painful to confront). So what’s the point of keeping 30 years worth of the Journal of the American Oriental Society which takes up at least 12 feet of book shelf space? Absolutely none. But what am I supposed to do with them? Throw them away (well, recycle the paper at the very least)? That is simply so painful for anyone who loves the written word and who harbours the thought deep down that perhaps, one day, all these journals should be read cover-to-cover (now that really would be an audacious plan!) . But thinking about it more realistically doesn’t make it any easier: to think that I won’t be able to browse through my collection and read articles that I just happen across on subjects that I know little to nothing about but which somehow capture my fancy.It also makes me realize that I would lose a significant part of my own memory: I won’t have that reminder that I’ve been enjoying this academic life for over 30 years!

A suggestion may be that there must be a possibility of selling these journals or shipping them overseas to a needy university library somewhere. This appears easier said than done. The former is a pretty limited market, it appears – there are over 400 listings on for individual issues (plus some single off-prints) of the Journal of the American Oriental Society at prices ranging from $4 each and up – sets comparable to mine seem to sell for around $500 at most. Thinking that I’m going to be able to rid myself of the hard copy journal s this way also brings to mind my futile attempt to sell some REALLY valuable sets of magazines – Equinox and Harrowsmith – via which produced absolutely no interest but did elicit much ridicule of me around my home for the effort. It seems that everyone faces essentially the same problem: magazines and journals expand to fill available space and are incredibly difficult to excise from one’s collection of printed material. The idea of sending these overseas is, I suspect, naive: not only would these journals prove incredibly expensive to ship but it’s doubtful that such specialized works in the humanities would prove of substantial appeal to overseas universities which face their own (far more real) demands on space (and cataloging and binding...).

So ultimately I view this as a problem provoked by the amazing development of online resources. Ten years ago it was common to hear complaints about the Library’s eagerness to replace paper with electronic resources. Today, that’s not a common sentiment: virtually all of us have come to realize the benefits of being able to access all this material no matter where we are and no matter what hour of the day or night. Printed journals now retain their prime value only for the first few years after being issued (when often online access is limited by the publisher).

All I can say is that it’s a dilemma, a very painful one.