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Going Digital

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I could not believe it was still there, the same sign at J.F.K. that had greeted me upon my return from Europe in 2008. Same sign, huge letters, my same feeling of outrage: “Sexier than a librarian. The Reader. From Sony.” The last time I encountered this sign, I was returning from a library conference in Italy, where everything (and everyone, including the librarians) was sexy. This past September I was returning from Royaumont, a restored medieval monastery outside of Paris, where I had presented a paper about Juilliard’s rare music collections and their implication for performers. There too, the (mostly French) librarians and musicologists, were, dare I say, sexy. Not sexy in a Hollywood or Sex and the City way, but sexy in their innate understanding of the value of manuscripts and other cultural treasures. 

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I will never buy a Sony book reader. Those who know this about me might be somewhat surprised to learn that on winter break, I bought myself a Kindle, from Amazon. Advertising differences aside, what could have inspired this unabashed book lover to go electronic? Well, space issues. There was no more room on the bookshelves in my Manhattan apartment. And, unlike Juilliard’s library, there’s no shelving expansion in the foreseeable future. I keep books that were important to me at one time or another, including some of the books I read as an undergraduate. Those who attended the doctoral forum I presented in the fall of 2008 heard about my underlined paperbound edition of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. This book, as well as novels by James Baldwin, Philip Roth, A. S. Byatt (and her sister Margaret Drabble), fill my shelves, along, of course, with many books about music: a paperbound set of Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music, biographies of musicians, cultural figures, writers, and politicians, as well as thick books about German-Jewish banking families (Ron Chernow’s The Warburgs)

Where could I put the new books I was looking forward to reading over winter break? I like to read contemporary fiction, and often the newest books are only available in hardcover format: more expensive than paperbacks, and too heavy to carry on the subway. Thus was the thought process that led to my Kindle purchase. As soon as the device arrived, I happily purchased and read Cynthia Ozick’s new book Foreign Bodies on it. I read it as quickly as I would have read it on paper. While there won’t be a physical copy on my overstuffed bookshelves, I confess that I keep a list of every book I read, so it’s recorded as part of my library. 

Of course I will still acquire physical books for my home library. Some of these will be reference-type books that I will want to refer to in physical form; some will be specialized books that will never be available in digital form; and, some will be there simply because I want them there: such are the wonderful choices in my personal library. (For those who are curious, I should say that I also have some treasured autographed copies of books that were given to me by their authors.) 

While there’s no question in my mind that the book is not disappearing, we are now part of a world where there are numerous options for accessing printed materials and media resources. For some types of materials, digital transmission simply makes more sense. In my now 33 years as a music librarian (25 of them at Juilliard), I have witnessed (and managed) numerous format changes for audio and video. It’s fortunate that my predecessors at Juilliard never collected cassette tapes extensively, because they turned out to be preservation disasters; VHS tapes, which we have collected, unfortunately have similar disadvantages. Our collection of more than 30,000 LP recordings includes many of historic importance that may never be available in digital format through commercial channels. Here the challenge is to maintain the equipment needed to play them, and/or to devote time and financial resources to digitizing in-house. The market will in many ways dictate what formats we are forced to collect, and many predict that there will always be some CDs and DVDs available for sale. However, I think that in the future we will primarily provide audio and video through subscriptions to digital databases, such as Naxos Music Library or Music Online (both are now available on JUILCAT Plus). In the case of audio and video, the physical media is becoming less necessary. 

Similarly, it is absolutely wonderful to have full texts of periodicals available digitally. Tools such as JSTOR have transformed the way all of us can do research. I’m sure many faculty members will recall the arduous process of requesting back issues of journals from the university library, and then taking them to another room to photocopy selected pages. (Also here I will give a shout-out of thanks to JSTOR and its parent organization, Ithaka, a nonprofit that prices its products affordably enough for small institutions such as Juilliard.)

I’m not so sure about replacing standard music scores with their digital surrogates. While there are many scores available digitally on the Internet (particularly public domain scores from such sources as the International Music Score Library Project: imslp.org), as well as some licensed databases for works under copyright (see Classical Scores Library through JUILCAT Plus), musicians expect to locate a nicely bound copy of music in their music libraries. The digital surrogates must be printed out from a computer, and then collated (by someone) to create a usable score to place on a music stand. Yes, I know there are digital music stands and other options, but this is a think piece and here you get to know how I view the practicalities of providing materials to performing artists. While none of us can predict the future, somehow I think that as long as there are music libraries, there will be performers who will come to them frantically seeking bound scores of musical compositions.  

E-books are increasingly becoming part of university and public library collections. While wonderful for individuals, they do present challenges to libraries. How do we circulate materials in this form? Also, how are they priced by publishers? Can we purchase them outright, or must they be licensed? Electronic resources, online databases, and the like are placing new (and sometimes untenable) demands on library budgets. JSTOR just announced that it will soon provide e-books. I’ll await more news on titles that may be of relevance to the Juilliard community. 

Perhaps the most significant use of digitization for libraries is the ability to preserve and provide universal access to manuscripts and rare editions, such as we can do with our Juilliard Manuscript Collection Web site. This technology has made it possible for individuals around the world to share in the joy of these wonderful treasures. And digitizing rarities also protects them from too much handling. 

So, back to my Kindle. I look forward to continuing my personal reading adventures on this portable device. And, I still don’t know what Sony and its advertising representatives hoped to achieve by their “Sexier than a librarian” campaign, other than to offend the professionals who have made it their mission to preserve and provide access to the documents of our civilization!

 

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