Yesterday I tweeted a link to an article from the Atlantic about how libraries, and we really mean university and research libraries, are seeing a massive decline in the use of the books on their shelves.
No real surprises there. Some years ago, ANU cleared a lot of books off their shelves to make space for student study areas – informal sitting areas, classic desks, power sockets and wifi – basically the aim was to provide a warm and congenial workspace.
Likewise if you visit the State Library in Melbourne, the reading rooms are crammed with desks equipped with power sockets and of course wifi is everywhere.
Everything else is online. Digitised newspapers, older books, the rest it’s all online.
It’s even possible to do family history online – no more trekking to old record offices, or sending off requests for copies of old documents, all you need is a computer and some sort of affiliation to access some databases.
My best example is the work I’m currently doing for the National Trust, documenting the contents of Dow’s Pharmacy in Chiltern.
Some of the work is fairly mechanical – brown glass bottle ~120mm h, metal cap, etc, printed label …, but some of it isn’t.
Some of it involves tracking down vanished pharmaceutical companies and finding information on when they were in business, what they sold, who, if anyone, they were taken over by, etc etc,
Background information, and in many cases more interesting than the actual material – like the story of Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound, and what it says about nineteenth century trade patterns and the rise of newspapers as advertising media following improvements in printing technology, cheap woodpulp paper, the reduction of taxes on newspapers, not to mentions increasing literacy.
Or the fact that Australia had no home grown glass making until 1872, and that consequently bottles were valuable, as can be seen in the case of this nineteenth century bottle of whale oil
with a sticker on the back informing that a deposit of 4d – quite a substantial amount of money then, and in purchasing terms a hell of a lot more than the 10c container refund you get in South Australia today.
All this information could not have been assembled without the aid of Trove, Welsh Papers Online, the Science Museum in London, Collections Victoria, MAAS in Sydney and others too numerous to mention.
Once, not so long ago, I would have needed to visit a range of institutions to do this work, and some of it would frankly have been impossible for me, as a volunteer, to do. Even though I have the skills to do the research I would have had to cover the travel costs somehow.
But now it can be done, and is done, either sitting at home in my study, or else in a draughty nineteenth century shop byulding in rural Victoria.
And that’s the power of digitisation, and why, increasingly, reference books are basically wallpaper …