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Lost In The Information Glut

By Tjalda Nauta

Library Director, Rhode Island College

Nowhere has the influence of advances in information technology been felt more profoundly than in libraries. Long before the advent of the book the most common storage media for communications in ancient Egypt and its neighbors was papyrus, made from the soft pith of papyrus reeds growing along the banks of the Nile. Around the second century B.C. parchment, tablets, made from the skin of young sheep or goats and clay, were developed and used concurrently with papyrus. In about the fourth century A.D. a new storage medium became popular, the codex, similar to our modern book. In its earliest format the codex was simply two wooden or ivory leaves coated hinged together and coated with wax which could be inscribed with a sharp stylus. Another form of codex was a sheet of parchment folded and stitched together on the fold to create a signature. Several signatures stitched or glued together and bound with leather or wood became the traditional codex that was used for hundreds of years [1].

Libraries and Universities

During the Middle Ages, cathedrals and monasteries were the exclusive repositories of books and manuscripts. By 1250, however, as the grip of the Church loosened, the University of Paris was endowed by Robert de Sorbonne with his entire collection of books, totaling 1289 items, an enormous collection by the standards of the day. In those times teachers or masters at the various medieval cathedral schools and universities were able to own small collections of books, which they would lend to their students. Students wrote up lecture notes which were copied and distributed through the many booksellers that congregated around such learning centers. These were the first textbooks, and students bought or rented them from the booksellers. In the 14th century, students began pooling their notes and books into libraries under the care of a student librarian. Slowly during the 14th century libraries were established in the various colleges of the universities, growing primarily through donations of books by kings, nobles, and bishops as well as by former students and scholars [2].

In 1455 when Gutenberg printed his first Bible, he created the first modern revolution in information storage technology (the second revolution would not come until 1959 with the development of the first computer chip). The availability of cheap mass-produced books, combined with the closing in the 16th century of many monasteries, contributed to the establishment and growth of libraries of all sorts throughout Europe. For example, the University of Paris’ Sorbonne College library’s initial collection in 1250 of 1289 items had grown to 25,000 items by 1789[3].

Classification Of Materials In Libraries

With the proliferation of the printed word creating collections of books became much easier, but information retrieval became more complicated. The earliest libraries arranged their clay tablets by broad categories – Grammar, History, Law, Natural History, Geography, Mathematics, Astronomy, Magic, Religion, and Legends – with each category having several sub-categories. The great library at Alexandria had a catalogue, called the Pinakes, compiled by Callimachus in the 3 B.C. It was arranged by authors, and divided into Poets, Lawmakers, Philosophers, Historians, Rhetoricians, and Miscellaneous Writers, each with subdivisions of time period, format and subject. In the medieval university libraries, by contrast, it was common to arrange materials by curriculum: the Trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic), and the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy). With the advent of the Renaissance and the increasing volume of materials to place on their shelves, however, some libraries arranged their materials by size only as a way of maximizing available shelf space. The serious disadvantage of this system was that a book on Astronomy, for instance, could be shelved immediately adjacent to a book on Roman Theology, necessitating a master catalog arranged by broad subjects to keep track of the locations of all materials on a particular subject.

Libraries continued to devise various schemes by which materials could be shelved in rough subject arrangements, many based on the local preferences and interests of their clientele. In the mid-19th century Melvil Dewey at Amherst College published his first classification scheme for library materials, which eventually became the scheme used by libraries throughout the US and Europe. The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system in the US, and its descendant the UDC (Universal Decimal Classification system, used in most European libraries) were ultimately overtaken by the much more detailed, complex and flexible Library of Congress (LC) classification scheme, but continue in popularity in non-academic libraries to this day [4].

The Silicon Chip Arrives

After the development of the first silicon-based microchip in 1959 and the rapid growth of chip-based electronic storage and retrieval of information librarians began to take notice and to wonder in professional literature what the future might hold for them and their libraries. In 1978 F.W. Lancaster of the Graduate School of Library Science at University of Illinois-Champaign published a book entitled Toward Paperless Information Systems in which he declared that all-electronic systems of scholarly communication were inevitable and examined how these would affect libraries [5]. His theory at that time was that eventually there would be no need for print format for the storage of scholarly communications, that everything would be recorded on the microchip and read on computers.

Electronic Resources in Libraries

Fast-forwarding to the 1980s, the pioneers of electronic delivery of documents such as Lexis-Nexis (Mead Data Central as it was known then) and Infotrac realized there was now a critical mass of computers and telecommunications systems in place among their customers and began to market their information products commercially. In academia, early adopters of electronic resources quickly embraced the new technology, limited as it was then to text-only monochromatic display delivered over telephone lines. Vendors cleverly provided these early adopter librarians with a computer to access their services as part of the subscription, knowing that many academic institutions did not yet have in place budgets for purchasing such technology. Printing and downloading were still a dream, but the mere fact of being able to use a computer to find and read abstracts of journal literature not available locally was irresistible.

Since full-text searching was still years away indexing and abstracting continued to be required, as they have since the mid-19th century, to bring subject access to the vast numbers of journal articles being added to their databases. ERIC and other databases that already had print editions of controlled vocabulary thesauri for their literature easily made the transition to the requirements of electronic search and retrieval. Others had to start from scratch, but for all it was economically and competitively attractive to add the new delivery medium to their array of products. Moreover, the search engines quickly became more sophisticated allowing researchers to cast progressively wider nets in their hunt for information.

As an example of how dramatic the impact of electronic storage and retrieval of information has been on libraries, during the time period of 1993 – 1998, following the introduction of both Lexis-Nexis (1986) and Infotrac (1990), the library at Bentley College, where the author was a librarian for 19 years, experienced a 78% reduction in the use of its print periodicals collection. The electronic deluge had begun. As the technology became easier to manage and cheaper to produce and deliver, more and more vendors of electronic documents entered the market. In many cases, publishers simply took an existing print product and delivered it electronically. As the market matured, however, companies learned to segment their products to meet more specific information needs of their customers. They developed new electronic-only products that were subsets of existing print products, enhanced with added information, formatting and data that had been previously unavailable. Some publishers created subscriptions that could be delivered free electronically with the purchase of a subscription to the comparable print product. Some publishers aggregated ever-greater numbers of journals into their databases, first only indexing them, then adding abstracts, then as the market heated up and storage technology grew, adding full-text search and retrieval. In recent years publishers have been pressured by their customers (many of them librarians) to add pdf formatting and to include images of charts and graphs and photos which previously had not been included in the text-only delivery. Currently, publishers are adding a digital-level pdf format that creates clearer images for downloading.

As technologies advanced acceptance among scholars and the general public alike became more widespread and enthusiastic. They began to put pressure on libraries to add more and more packages of these electronically-delivered sources of information, arguing that not only did the electronic products give them access to a larger universe of information and data than their traditional library-housed print resources but that the search and retrieval capabilities of the new technology allowed a level of depth and accuracy they had never before been able to achieve. And once delivery of the electronic products became web-based, accessible from locations off-campus, the enthusiasm became a clamor. By the late 1990s, the convenience of being able to do research at home or in the office without having to physically enter the library became, and continues to be, one of the most popular services an academic library provides.

Libraries’ Problems with Electronic Resources

It is important for academic faculty and administration to understand the numerous and complex issues facing academic libraries as they work to fulfill their students’ appetite for electronic-based information resources. One of the most vexing and complex aspects of the transition to electronic format particularly for journals has been the lack of predictability and control on the part of the vendors of these electronic packages. Vendors, while trying to give their customers what they want also have to keep a constant eye on the bottom line. Vendors attempt to respond to demands from academic libraries to add more journal titles, bundled in ways to reduce the number of extraneous unwanted titles, in formats that allow printing and downloading, full-text, with images please so that we can view and download charts, maps, graphs and pictures, and with files, back to the beginnings of the journal, if possible. However, due to copyright and licensing restrictions vendors, by and large, have not been able to give libraries a list of titles that has been stable over time. Titles, suddenly without any advanced notice from the vendor, disappear from a service, or suddenly, there is an embargo imposed on the most recent issue – or two or even three – to maximize the publisher’s/author’s ability to make a profit from their work.

Even more worrisome, should an academic library choose to discontinue an electronic subscription for budgetary reasons, the entire database of information and data previously provided by that subscription is gone. Previously when a library discontinued a print subscription of a journal that decision affected access to future issues but not to the ones already purchased, which were safely housed in print format on the library’s shelves.
Vendors themselves are not stable either. Agreements made with customers concerning storage and future accessibility of their products are not guaranteed to be adhered to when one vendor is bought out by another. As in all other industries these days, publishers are buying each other out at a head-spinning rate, leaving libraries painfully exposed to the inconsiderate demands of commerce.

The concern about preserving scholarly literature as a cultural record for future generations is of little or no interest to commercial vendors, and for this reason non-commercial ventures such as JSTOR at the University of Michigan and Project Muse at Johns Hopkins University have entered the field of electronic storage. They digitize entire sets of journals, back to their first issue, and sell access to these sets to primarily academic and research libraries. Unlike commercial vendors, JSTOR and Project Muse sell their products in perpetuity, meaning that customer libraries will always be assured of access to these title sets whatever the vagaries of budget limitations may befall their institutions. Adams Library has purchased access to several JSTOR sets of journal titles, and plans to purchase more as budget permits.

Of course, few libraries were lucky enough to receive increased funding from their institutions to allow them to purchase new electronic media in addition to the traditional print media. Something had to give, and in most cases, it was the budget for print materials. Using Bentley College again as an example, their print journal subscription list in 1993 was approximately 1280 titles. By 1999 that list had been reduced to fewer than 900 titles. By 2001, it was down to only about 800 titles, which in 2001 journal prices cost almost as much as the 1280 titles did back in 1993. Meanwhile, the book budget has remained flat, which with an average annual price increase for print materials of 9% translates into a substantial loss of purchasing power.

As an effective way of addressing budget issues most academic libraries have joined forces into resource-sharing groups called consortia. Richard Olsen, then Director of the James P. Adams Library at Rhode Island College, was the primary force in the early 1990s in the establishment of the HELIN Consortium (Higher Education Library Information Network) in Rhode Island, starting with RIC, CCRI, and URI. Joining a little while later were Roger Williams University, Johnson & Wales University, Providence College, and later still Bryant College and Salve Regina University. The trend continues as HELIN grew in 2002 to include Brown University. And recently a number of other area colleges, universities and even other consortia have indicated an interest in joining HELIN as well. Many states have created state-wide state-supported consortia for all libraries within their borders. OHIOLink, CARL (Colorado), and closer to home the MLIN consortium in Massachusetts, among many others, all are providing their citizens with access to a vast array of electronic information resources through the public and academic libraries in each state.

The advantage and driving force for all consortium members is greater, and easier access to print materials. Print materials are physically owned by an institution and can be loaned out, either in their entirety or as photocopies of smaller subsets, to other member libraries. Print materials are expensive, vast in number, and require a great deal of physical space to house. However, no one institution, not even the Harvards of this world, can possibly have on its shelves the entire universe of scholarly communication in print format. To overcome this problem libraries long ago learned to cooperate and share their collections through what is still called the Interlibrary Loan network. Until the 1970s, this system required a great deal of time and patience, depending as it did on the traditional mail systems of the various countries. Once the network became electronically based, in the 1970s, sharing of resources was expedited. Individual researchers, through the assistance of librarians using mediated electronic search services such as Dialog, were able to identify a much greater numbers of items of interest to them than previously. As well the requesting and delivery of such items became quicker and easier. However, electronically-delivered information products cannot be shared through interlibrary loan. While the telecommunications technology required to connect all member institutions in a consortium lends itself easily to delivery of electronic resources, market forces in most cases do not allow consortial members to share with other members access to electronic resources for which only they have paid. Consortia can often arrange for group subscription rates with a vendor, but in no case will a vendor allow an institution to “lend” access to their databases to non-paying institutions.

Cooperative collection development has been instituted in other consortia around the country and is currently being examined by HELIN as a further way of reducing costs by reducing duplication of print materials among the member institutions. In principle such an effort would seem logical. After all, why should a library pay for a book that is already owned by another member library? However, the issue is a great deal more complicated than it appears. Time/delivery issues, heavy demand, and in many cases institutional pride all work against cooperative purchasing of print materials. However ever-rising costs, shrinking budgets and lack of shelf space are all conspiring to force libraries and their consortial partners to find some common ground that will allow even a modest amount of sharing of purchasing choices. Overlap studies of collections, especially periodicals and serials, identify those titles that are being purchased by more than one member institution, and are usually the starting point for such a project. Such studies are fairly simple to execute since, at least in the case of HELIN, all member institutions share a common database.

Another example of cooperative collection development that the HELIN Consortium is pursuing is the purchase of collections of online books, referred to as e-books. These electronic books are identical to their print versions and are sold to libraries in packages that combine some classic titles and along with a great number of current publications. The Consortium has already purchased access to a collection of almost 4,000 e-books from a vendor called netLibrary. These titles are listed in the HELIN catalog just as if they were print books. While one advantage of e-books is that we can access them from anywhere an even bigger advantage is that using the vendor’s software one can execute searches on every word in the entire database of available e-books. A searcher can quickly and easily find the precise page or chapter in an e-book containing the information being sought. This is something that is not possible on a print collection of books. A non-profit group called the Gutenberg Project ( has been working since 1971 to put into html/xml format thousands of classic books and making them available for free on the Internet. Hundreds of volunteers are contributing their time to this project and the current list of available titles is up to 6267.

Awash in the Information Glut

The issue of whether we will ever have a truly paperless society has proven to be a more complex question than Lancaster originally envisioned in 1978. Twenty years after his theory was first published, he wrote an article entitled “Second Thoughts on a Paperless Society,” in which states that the existence of vast quantities of information, easily accessible through modern technology, increases rather than decreases the level of complexity of information research, requiring students and faculty and librarians alike to receive more training in research methods [6]. Unfortunately few academic institutions have officially recognized this problem, leaving it to individual faculty to arrange for any library instruction they feel suitable and necessary for their students to succeed in the research needed to succeed in their courses. Academic institutions that have understood the importance of teaching modern research methods have added such a course to their curricula, taught in most cases by professional librarians. Most typically these are for-credit one-semester courses, in some cases they are required for graduation, in others they are considered an elective.

Faculty and administration of every academic institution must recognize the importance of instruction in research methods for their students, so that they are able to locate and identify information that is relevant and trustworthy. As part of their education, students must be taught how to differentiate between internet-trash and internet-riches, to understand issues of copyright, plagiarism, and intellectual honesty. Such instruction must be institution-wide and added to the curriculum of every program supported by the institution. Allowing students to graduate without having been taught modern research methods is as irresponsible as it would be to allow them to drive a car without proper instruction. Librarians have always been front and center in the educational process, in the teaching and learning that is the heart of academia, and should be relied upon by faculty to deliver instruction and training in research methods so urgently needed by their students, awash and lost in today’s information glut.

End Notes
  • [1] For further readings on the history of the book consult the following:
    • Johnson, Elmer D. History of Libraries in the Western World. 2nd ed. Metuchen N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1970.
    • Harris, Michael H. History of Libraries in the Western World. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1984.
    • Brassington, William S. A History of the Art of Bookbinding With Some Account of the Books of the Ancients. London: 1894.
    • Holiday, Carl. The Dawn of Literature. New York: 1931.
  • [2] For further readings on libraries in the middle ages consult the classic in the field:
    • Thompson, James Westfall. The Medieval Library. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939.
  • [3] See Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformation in Early Western Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
  • [4] “Classification.” In: American Library Association. ALA World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services. Chicago: American Library Association, 1980.
  • [5] Lancaster, F.W. Toward Paperless Information Systems. Champaign: University of Illinois-Champaign, 1978.
  • [6] Lancaster, F.W. “Second Thoughts on the Paperless Society.” Library Journal, Sept.15, 1999. p.48-51.

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Page last updated: Wednesday, March 15, 2006