Saturday, March 18, 2023

Screen Fatigue Versus
the Purge of Paper


The other day, I received a promotional email from Internet Archive, advising patrons of their various digitized collections. Even though I regularly check Internet Archive for public domain volumes pertinent to my family's surnames, I was surprised to see they had specifically curated a genealogy collection.

The collection's About page named several prime genealogy resources which had contributed to the holdings—the Brigham Young University's library and the Allen County Public Library being readily recognizable among the named repositories. But the collection went beyond the familiar, including such unexpected resources as the University of Toronto and the National Library of Scotland. In fact, clicking on the Collections tab opened up a listing by record set, including national and state census enumerations, published family histories, and an overwhelming collection of records garnered through the efforts of Reclaim the Records.

Granted, seeing this wealth of digitized records should be good news to those of us who can't simply hop a flight to Salt Lake City or Fort Wayne, Indiana. Digitized records have their place—a valuable one—as any fan of the website can attest.

Swept up in the midst of this celebration of all things cyber-accessible, however, may be a downside. I had first heard of this when my daughter mentioned to me that the library of my alma mater had rid its spaces of books and journals, superseded by a new wave of preference for all things digital.

The "new" library is called the "bookless library." And it's not exactly new. The idea has been around for at least ten years—ever since San Antonio, Texas, opened its digital-only library in 2013, claimed to be one of the first of its kind.

The idea has some merit. One university library in Pennsylvania analyzed circulation on items in their holdings—mostly academic books and journals—and discovered nearly half of their collection went uncirculated for twenty years or longer. Yet, while that material may have gone untouched in Pennsylvania, a scholar on the opposite side of the country—or the world, for that matter—might have needed to study it, if only it were more accessible.

While the purge of paper may make sense, especially for those institutions with academic holdings, on the other side of digital divide preferences are those researchers for whom constant use of computer screens becomes fatiguing. Add to that the people who prefer to process material by just curling up with that old-fashioned format—a book—and reading.

It's likely that most people know exactly where they stand on an either-or question like that—paper or plastic?—but it is just as likely that the question requires insertion of a moderator. We may prefer curling up with a good book versus reading it on our Kindle or iPad, but if we need to locate the eighteenth century tax records of colonial Virginia—as I currently do for my Tilson research—I find it far more convenient to suffer screen fatigue but get the answers I'm seeking, rather than fuss with sending requests for photocopies or purchasing pricey or rare printed resources. The short answer to that preference dichotomy is: it depends.

Meanwhile, our preferences as genealogists—especially those of us involved in local genealogical organizations—may be tainted by the efforts we have expended, over the years, in amassing print material. In my own society, which just celebrated the seventy-first anniversary of its founding, there has been a long organizational history of donating reference material to our county's public library. Yet despite the thousands of volumes our society has made freely available for patrons to peruse in a comfortable working area, seldom does anyone make the journey downtown to access the material.

A consortium of local societies within a fifty mile radius in our own region is working to add a section to their website pointing researchers to the specific print holdings of each of our collective libraries, but even with this added resource, I wonder whether the numbers will increase of people willing to leave home and computer to drive to a library. We have become enamored with what we can find at the beck and call of our plastic mouse, having forgotten that, like the proverbial tip of the iceberg, not everything genealogical is visible above the plastic surface of a computer screen. 


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