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Five Things No One Tells You About Library Research

The Future Being Made... for the Future!

That's a booktruck sitting in the hall outside my office (in April 2013) waiting to be picked up and scanned for Google Books. In a few weeks those library books will be digitized and uploaded to the web. Yay! Of course you won't be allowed to look at those scans for 50 or 60 years, when the books are out of copyright. Um, yay? You don't mind waiting, do you?

Tons of material is not online . . .

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me "Can I get that online?" I'd be... well, not rich. Nowhere near rich, nickels just aren't worth that much. But I'd have a LOT of nickels. And I'd almost double that pile if I got another one every time I had to answer "No."

The Internet may be big, but it's only been around for a couple decades. Which means (see previous page) that there's 4980 years of human writing which was done before the internet. That's a lot of writing, and most of it's on paper. While libraries and companies are furiously scanning that stuff (much of it under deadline before it disintegrates), they're still nowhere near finishing.

Also, don't forget that many books and journals are still published only in paper, with no "e"-versions. Again, online publishing is soaring, but it has in no way replaced paper books.

 

. . . and even if it is, you can't get it.

And here's the bigger problem. Just because something is online doesn't mean it's free. Authors and publishers want to make money from their work, and that applies just as much to digital work as it does to paper. This often has weird ramifications in pricing. Online journal subscriptions for libraries often cost MORE than paper subscriptions, because the publishers know that more people can use the online version. So even if something is online, UCLA may not subscribe to it. We may still only get the (much cheaper) paper, or may not have it at all. We're big, but no library has everything!

It can get even more frustrating when dealing with mass digitization projects like Google Books or HathiTrust. These programs have scanned millions of older library books. But because most of those books are still under copyright, no one is allowed to see the scanned images! The text is out there, and can be searched, making it increasingly easy to "discover" these books online, but all you actually get to see is a snippet of text. Similar issues can apply to journal articles, which are often indexed in online databases even when the journal itself isn't online.

Result: You'll have to wait for things to be delivered.

Not only does academic research require a lot of time, you're going to need to spend additional time just waiting for things. Because finding something online doesn't automatically mean getting it online. Instead you need to request an interlibrary loan and then wait for library staff to find another library that a) has the thing you want and b) is willing to loan it to us so we can loan it to you. That can take anywhere from a few hours (for short things like individual articles or chapters, fair use laws often allow libraries to scan and e-mail the material) to a few months (for uncommon books it can take a while to find anyone willing to lend it at all, and then you've got to wait for it to be shipped via snail mail) to never (for really rare, one-of-a-kind stuff, you really do have to physically visit the one library in the world that has it in order to read it).