Not a Battle nor a War, but a Quest for Balance

poster reads "Keep Libraries and Learn Stuff"

Image cc license from Flickr user LaurieJ

Friday afternoon, we received a phone call from another library.  While this is a not a memorable event on its own, what was surprising was the caller’s request — could we please send them one of our organization’s knowledge products, specifically a print version of an enormous online database?

Although the library regularly receives requests for publications, which we fill or forward to the appropriate party for fulfillment, the problem was that, while publications have been produced using content from this database, no print version of the database’s full contents exists. It has been deemed impractical to try and reproduce the entire database in print format, for a number of reasons. One reason the product exists only as a database is that content is updated and added on a regular basis, meaning a print version of the product would quickly become outdated or incomplete. A second reason is that the key feature of the database is the system’s ability to allow users to play with the information, generate maps, analyze data and produce graphic interpretations of the information, features that could not be reproduced in a print document or on a single CD-ROM.

The most surprising aspect of this call, though, was the insistence of the caller, a librarian, that we should provide this product in print format, that we were in fact obliged to do so;  by choosing to not produce this product on print format, we were forcing libraries to print the entire thing themselves. Even though we explained the reasons the print format did not exist and the benefits of instead using the database with it’s up-to-date content and analytical features, all accessible online from anywhere in the world, the caller was persistent and nearly irate — we must provide this information, in both analog and digital media or we were failing our constituents and neglecting our responsibilities.

By contrast, in the opinion of my colleague who had taken the call, the librarian had unreasonable expectations and was being inflexible.  It was unreasonable because we have not yet reached a point where anything one can imagine can be produced, instantaneously, easily and at low cost.  Even with print-on-demand or 3D printers, e-Readers and inter-library loan, every resource is not available to everyone who might need it.  Additionally, the demand that we would produce a publication in any media requested, including print, whether or not the content fit the format, was illogical.  It made as little sense as might the act of keeping multiple copies of a print document in case the Internet failed and all electronic content in the world was lost.

My colleague was most concerned with the battles between proponents of print resources and electronic resources, between advocates of analog media and digital media, between “technophobes” and “technophiles”.  It is an argument I had heard before and one I will doubtlessly hear again.  However, while a valid topic for discussion, I find these battles frustrating and distracting as I am more invested in what Tame the Web contributor Mick Jacobsen describes as the War: “I am fighting the War to make the Library vital to my community and make the community I serve the best in the world” (Jacobsen, “Battles & Wars,” February 2012).

I am more preoccupied with Jacobsen’s War than these battles.  But in fact, I am not certain that it is accurate to say I am fighting a war at all;  it may be more appropriate to say that I am simply endeavoring, with all the resources at my disposal, to address the challenges of balancing the needs of different user groups; trying to find the information, resources, and tools they need; and helping patrons learn to make the most of resources and tools.

On any given day, there is a patron who wants a large-print version of a book for which no large-print version exists; a researcher who needs an article which has not yet been printed and which is unavailable electronically due to a database or publisher embargo; and librarians and library staff who really want to be able to help and provide what is requested, but are unable to do so. There is a delicate balance between patron expectations, user service aspirations, and realities regarding availability. While copyright and records management, intellectual property and e-books are important subjects for all, I am more committed to trying to find this balance.  I am dedicated to supporting more users with fewer resources and convincing staff that, with or without print publications or electronic resources, the library still has much to offer.


Jacobsen, Mick. (2012) “Battles & Wars.” Tame the Web, 19 February 2012. Retrieved 15 April 2012 (


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