Blown To Bits

Harvard Stops Printing (some) Books

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Harvard announced yesterday that it would no longer print the course catalog, the Handbook for Students, and a few other softcover volumes that are issued annually to students and faculty. The Admissions Office had already announced that it would cut down on the amount of printed matter it sends to high school students. The rationale is for doing less printing is, of course, cost savings — Harvard is undergoing significant budgetary contraction. It’s a bit sad — I have a collection of Harvard course catalogs going back to about 1850. The earliest ones, before Eliot abolished most curricular requirements and instituted the elective curriculum, had the course schedule printed on a single page: Hours of the day across, days of the week down, and four lines in each box, indicating which course would be taken by freshmen, sophomores, etc. at that time on that day of the week. I’m going to add this year’s, which is hundreds of pages long, as the last one in the collection.

If I can find it. I think it’s in the office somewhere, but I’ve never looked at it, since it’s generally easier to use the Web version. And that, of course, is the reason this move makes so much sense. The online catalog is searchable, and it’s also up-to-date — there are always additions and deletions to the list of courses after the catalog goes to print.

Still, books are more browsable than online text. Though user interfaces keep getting improved, there is nothing with the high bandwidth of flipping through the pages of a book, creating the opportunity for the marvelous human visual system to catch a word flashing by. And computers are still awkward to read in bed.

Harvard couldn’t have been considered dropping the printed catalog until the Internet became ubiquitous — or at least ubiquitous on campus. The fact that it’s far from ubiquitous in many parts of America poses a challenge to the electronic outreach efforts of the Admissions Office.

One of my colleagues poses an interesting question. The Registrar has always posed a strict 200-word limit on our course descriptions, to prevent our enormous course catalog from becoming gargantuan. But bits are cheap. If we hold to the 200 word limit, it will be another example of a social restriction we used to justify by economic necessity, but which we sustain because we decide that the discipline is good for us even after technology has gutted the economic justification. There are many other examples in Blown to Bits — for example, the regulation of speech on U.S. broadcast radio and television.

And then there’s the question — will some pack-rat, a century and a half from now, be able to assemble a collection of Harvard course catalogs, to compare and contrast? What confidence can we have that institutions on which we rely to provide online information will keep their archives visible forever?

4 Responses to “Harvard Stops Printing (some) Books”

  1. yvette Says:

    A few physical (paper and CD) copies should be made for archival purposes. There is only so much archive.org can do.

  2. Kathy Says:

    But it’s much more pleasant to sit out on the Yard with your course catalog, imagining the possibilities for the coming semester, than to do the same with your laptop. As for the Handbook…well, that’s okay with me.

  3. Harvard spart sich einige B?ºcher : Stephan Humer - Internetsoziologie Says:

    [...] Das Vorlesungsverzeichnis ist ab sofort nur noch online verf?ºgbar. Und schon folgen die logischen Gedanken hinsichtlich der Archivierung f?ºr die [...]

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