Behind the Bookshelf

Friday, 19 June, 2015

In the 13th century the Mongol hordes, under Hulagu Khan, lay siege to the medieval metropolis of Baghdad. The city’s famous library was destroyed, with so many books thrown into the rivers that the waterways were said to run black with ink. To this day, it remains the single largest destruction of knowledge in history. For years, our own heart of knowledge at the University of Melbourne lay within the Baillieu library. However, this is swiftly changing – due in no small part to digitalisation.

The Baillieu’s basement floor is an odd and contradictory place. Like the library’s other levels, it plays host to scores of students smashing energy drinks and double dropping No-Doz to hammer out their essays, as well as decidedly quieter shelves of books. However, the basement contains a unique area: the journal section, the heart of knowledge at the University.

There is a phenomenal amount of intelligence archived in this section. It may come as a surprise to you that most of the journals you can find on Discovery, as well as many that you cannot, are available here in hard copy: even some that date from 1721! Newspapers from all around the world are also available on microfilm; all the newspapers published in the Soviet Union are in record, as are all editions of the Age published on microfilm. You can even read through eighty years of Farrago – although, really, why would you? You could just as easily ask Martin.

I’ve been down to this section of the Baillieu many times, and each time I never fail to be amazed by the sheer amount of information contained there. For anyone who enjoys learning, it is an exhilarating experience to stand before a shelf, jam-packed with articles that span every topic imaginable, and knowing that you could just grab one journal at random and read through it. African American Studies? Check. The Sydney papers? Check. The Royal French Academy of Science? Yep, that’s there too.

While this magnificent section of the library is by no means neglected, it is most certainly forgotten. As I found when I was researching for this article, it is rare to find students browsing there. This may be due in part to the declining prominence of such resources in the digital age. Many journals published their last hardcopies in the mid-2000s, and microfilms are near-obsolete ? digital databases like Trove have rendered them effectively useless. The Age still makes microfilms, although The Herald Sun wound up in 2013.

This digitalisation revolution has brought with it both benefits and drawbacks, something that simply leafing through the journals in the Baillieu basement shows. Digitalisation brings with it many advantages: you need only a computer to gain access to the same breadth of knowledge that these countless shelves of texts offer. It makes gaining specified knowledge infinitely easier – heaven help you if you need to find a specific page in a specific article in a specific journal without the use of an e-copy that you can do a keyword search on.

At the same time, digital documents have a far shorter lifespan than hardcopies. Something printed on vellum can last 1000 years; your Grade 3 assignment you saved onto floppy disc is lost forever. When the University ceases to subscribe to an eJournal, you’ll lose access to every article in every volume of that journal – past, present, and future. When the University ceases subscribing to the hardcopy journals, in contrast, you only miss out on the new publications.

Personally, I think that one of the biggest drawbacks in the decline of hardcopies is the loss of that distinct sense of awe you feel when standing before a shelf filled to the brim with books. Browsing through an alphabetised list of the countless e-journals Unimelb students have access to can never evoke this same feeling. In the digitalised age, we may no longer be able to tangibly see and understand how little we know of the world. Digitalisation makes finding the answer to a question far easier, but it makes looking for a question all the more difficult.