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“The Tenacious Book:” A Harvard Library Strategic Conversation

Vanessa Kam of the University of British Columbia shares findings on print and digital materials in art and architecture libraries.


May 6, 2014—Electronic images can be poor substitutes for images in print—one reason why art and architecture scholars continue to rely heavily on print publications despite a shift to digital.

Vanessa Kam, acting head of music, art and architecture at the University of British Columbia Library, joined a Harvard Library Strategic Conversation to share her findings from a study of the balance between print and digital in art and architecture collections.

“Given the state of art and architecture collecting today,” Kam asked, with print retaining its importance and electronic collections growing, “how might we go about forming a vision that will serve us and our users well into the future?”

Kam interviewed 14 librarians in the discipline at leading institutions, including Mary Clare Altenhofen, Amanda Bowen and Ann Whiteside at Harvard, as well as five publishers. She identified five main challenges facing art and architecture librarians interested in championing print:

  • Staffing as staff hours shift from the acquisition/processing of electronic collections 
  • Shifts in budget priorities from print acquisitions to digital
  • Pressure from administrators to focus on e-content
  • Policies prohibiting collecting both print and digital copies of the same titles
  • Space planning and real estate costs

“The future of collections in our libraries is political for many of us,” Kam said. For example, the total cost of keeping a book on the shelf at a university in Vancouver is over $3 per year, per volume, which could decrease interest in keeping low-circulation volumes in prime library locations. Kam suggested that librarians who build collections convey art and architecture books as objects, not simply texts, and collections as a future museum of the art of the age. The return on investment will not be realized in current circulation, but by future researchers.

In closing, Kam suggested an active approach, noting that an answer can be found only by “seating ourselves at the table, throwing ourselves in the fray and sharing our strategies with one another.”

The Harvard Library Strategic Conversations series is designed to foster collaborative and open dialogue in hopes of informing the strategic direction of the Library and foster a culture of innovation, entrepreneurship and collaboration among staff, faculty and others in the Library community. It is funded through the generosity of The Bradley M. and Terrie F. Bloom Family Fund. Learn more and find upcoming events here.