The 21st century Harvard Library calls itself “first and foremost” a digital library. The Harvard Library Digital Strategy encourages librarians to buy e-books and to prefer electronic formats over print or other physical media. This digital-first collection development strategy allows a qualified adherence for special collections libraries such as the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. The Schlesinger is an archive and library which, in the previous century, had a print-focused mission to collect and preserve manuscripts, books, newsletters, pamphlets, and other printed materials documenting women’s lives. While manuscript materials from previous centuries were created with ink and paper, recent decades have seen the proliferation of born digital materials. The Schlesinger curates and preserves this electronic record, archiving websites, podcasts, and Twitter feeds, and is now no longer predominantly a print repository.
In an information world dominated by the digital, the Schlesinger’s books and published materials department primarily acquires books, pamphlets, media, and realia (both new titles and antiquarian) in analog form. The library collects and preserves current publications and those of earlier times, including commercial pamphlets that sell products to women to make their housework efficient and their husbands happy, and newsletters condemning abortion or supporting the Equal Rights Amendment or warning of the danger of women’s suffrage. Many books in the library’s collection are valued not only for their intellectual content, but for their provenance—the book’s connection to the individual who read it and who wrote notes in the margins, also known as marginalia. All of the Schlesinger’s books are found through Harvard Library’s HOLLIS catalog. They are requested and read in the Library’s reading room.
Where does the electronic book fit into the library’s mission to collect and preserve the documents of women’s history? Many books that the library acquires (social and political studies, works of popular culture, contemporary memoirs) are published in electronic book format as well as in print. Some titles are only published digitally. E-books are as varied as print books in their appearance, layout, and availability. They may be leased for a year or bought in perpetuity. The cost is often higher than that of the print book and, depending on the terms of the license, an unlimited number of users or only one user may read an e-book at any one time. They are published in different file formats with idiosyncratic online interfaces and copyright-dictated printing restrictions. Readers may annotate the digital margins, creating the marginalia of the electronic book, but in their own private accounts, not on the shared copy.
Beginning last year, the Schlesinger Library shared the cost with other Harvard libraries of two multidisciplinary collections of electronic academic books, Project Muse and University Press Scholarship Online. Each include hundreds of books on women’s history. E-books like print books have descriptive records in the HOLLIS catalog. Request a print book and one waits a day (or two) and is required to read the book in the Schlesinger Reading Room. Request an e-book by clicking “View Online” and read immediately. If researchers are not on the Harvard campus, they must login with their Harvard credentials. Some e-books are open access (their copyright restrictions have expired), so they are available with no login necessary. E-books require no shelf space and no wait—two advantages in today’s Harvard Library where physical space is limited and instant access is valued. E-books do not have paper that will turn brittle or bindings that will crack, but they do have data files that will degrade and will need to be migrated as computer systems evolve.
The Schlesinger Library is committed to providing access to the materials that document women’s lives, whether those materials are printed on paper or displayed through computer code. An e-book has the same intellectual content as a printed book, and it is on your screen in an instant. However, if you want to hold a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique once owned and annotated by Alice Paul, or a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves damaged from the bombing of an abortion clinic, or Adrienne Rich’s copy of her own work, The Dream of A Common Language, bound in black leather and gray cloth with red marbled endpapers and pages edged in gilt (the book tucked inside a matching gray cloth slip case), you will need to come to the Schlesinger Reading Room. Some books are worth the wait.