Subscriptions to printed journals have [a|no] place in academic libraries


This essay will examine the question of whether or not subscriptions to print/paper scholarly journals have a place in academic library collections. First a brief history of scholarly journals shall be given. The major part of the essay will focus on print journals compared to electronic journals1 (the only real alternative to print). Benefits and downsides of both formats will be examined and discussed. A brief an analysis of the point of academic libraries follows, before the final discussion and conclusion.

The conclusion is that generally electronic journals serve the major purpose of academic libraries better than printed journals. However, in some cases it maybe impractical to unsubscribe from a print journal, and there maybe other reasons for academic libraries to subscribe to print journals. Therefore, print journals still do have a place, albeit minor, in academic libraries.


All scholarly journals were originally published on paper. The first peer reviewed journals were first published in 1665 (Keefer, 2001; Alison Wells, 1999). Since its invention in the first half of the twentieth century until the 1980s, microfilm was widely discussed as a format (Miller, 2000; Richards, 1993). With the rise of easy access to computers, indexes and abstracts, articles (including preprints), and whole journals were published on CD-ROMs and wide spread computer networks (including the Internet). In the 1980s CDs offered a lot of potential (Richards, 1993), but by the late 1990s they had been almost entirely been supplanted (Miller, 2000). In the area of network distribution, initially various systems, including email, FTP (file transfer protocol), UseNet (NewsNet) and propitiatory systems (including Gopher) were used, but with the rise of the World Wide Web (WWW), it became the dominant distribution method (Keefer, 2001). And by the mid-1990s, commercial publishers were distributing electronic journals via the WWW on a large scale (Keefer, 2001; Alison Wells, 1999). However, there are also a large number of “open access” journals that are freely available to readers without cost.

Print versus electronic

Print and electronic are quite different formats, and each format has advantages and disadvantages for journals. However, electronic journals tend to provide more advantages to both end users and to institutions. The benefits and downsides of both formats relate to both users and institutions.

Print journals

The benefits of print journals, compared to electronic journals, include:

The major downsides of printed journals relate to the costs involved for institutions. Generally electronic journals are cheaper, for a variety of reasons (see below). Other problems with print journals are inherent in the physical nature of the item. They can be lost, stolen or otherwise misplaced, or damaged or destroyed. They can also not be searched as easily as electronic journals.

Electronic journals

Electronic journals tend to have all the advantages of electronic formats generally2. Advantages to electronic journals include:

Despite having none of the major disadvantages that print journals do, electronic journals have their own problems. The most obvious (perhaps) disadvantages relate to losing attributes (benefits) that paper journals have; both those discussed above, and others, such as "serendipitous discovery" (Sathe, Grady, & Giuse, 2002; Rusch-Feja & Siebeky, 1999; Hollerman, 2000).

Other potential problems mainly resolve around licensing issues. These include:

However, these problems are quickly becoming less relevant. The widespread availability of databases with features such as 'related articles' and 'cited by' enable one to find related information quickly, without starting a new search. This can replace serendipitous discovery.

While long-term cost and other licensing issues are genuine concerns, institutions are becoming more savvy. The use of subscription agents and consortium purchasing also reduces these problems (Nabe, 2001; Ashcroft & Langdon, 1999). As well, open access journals have none of the problems related to pay-for journals (Suber, 2003). Institutions are also demanding that electronic journals contain the same information (including book reviews, editorials and letters) that paper journals have (Zambare et al., 2009).

However, it is certainly true that licensing is a major potential problem for institutions. Zambare et al. (2009) recount how a publisher provided back issues, after a contract had expired, in a form that was unusable to the institution (but still within the bounds of the contract). The fact is that in some cases, the electronic journal subscription maybe more hassle than it is worth for the institution.

User preferences

A number of studies have shown that most users prefer electronic journals compared to print. For example: Koehn & Hawamdeh, 2010; Morse & Clintworth, 2000; Rusch-Feja & Siebeky, 1999; Sathe et al., 2002; and Montgomery & King, 2002. Mischo, Norman, Shelburne, & Schlembach, 2007 list a number of other relevant studies.

What's the point of an academic library?

Academic libraries exist to “support the learning, teaching and (where applicable) research of their parent institutions”3 (Oakley & Vaughan, 2007). They do this by providing resources and support to students and staff. Academic libraries may or may not also cater to members of the general public, students who are not studying at the institutions (including primary and high school students), and alumni.

A small survey of Australian academic library websites, collection policies and mission statements suggests that they mainly see their primary users as students and staff. Sometimes this is sometimes presented as supporting the mission of the university.

For example, the University of South Australia Library says that the primary user groups are “Staff and students of the University” (Parnell, n.d.). The University of New South Wales's Library's mission is to: “Support the teaching, learning, creative and research functions of the University ” (Andrew Wells, 2010). The University of Tasmania Library aims to, “acquire, preserve and provide access to diverse collections of scholarly information, available where they are needed by students, researchers and academics ” as well as “support ... the academic directions of University of Tasmania” (UTAS Library, 2010). The libraries of Charles Darwin University, Bond University and Charles Sturt University have similar statements (Quinn, 2010; Bond University Library, 2011; Division of Library Services, 2011).

The University of Queensland Library is exceptional, it does not specifically mention students or staff, rather the mission is simply to “enrich world-class scholarship” (Lyons, 2011).

Discussion and Conclusion

Based on the purpose of academic libraries (to support staff and students), and the fact that electronic journals provide more benefits, for both the library and the principle users, than print journals (and are preferred by users), it is difficult to argue that print journals still have a general place in academic libraries.

Even if academic libraries cater to the general public, as well as students and staff, print journals are not essential. Walk in access, for the general public, allows access to journals from computers in the library without needing a user-name or password. Though this may complicate matters in regard to licensing for the libraries.

Yet, it would be a sad day when academic libraries no longer subscribe to any print journals. Therefore, if only for reasons of sentimentality and tradition, academic libraries should continue to subscribe to, at least some, print journals. The particular titles will depend on focus of each library, but the important titles in the field or fields that library is focused on should continue to be subscribed to in printed form (as well as electronic form; so that users also get the benefits of the electronic form).

Moreover, regardless of how much academic libraries may wish to subscribe to electronic journals only, some journals may continue to exist only in print form, or from publishers that particular institutions cannot meet agreement with over licensing. In these cases, if the institutions wish to continue to subscribe to these journals, it will have to be in the print format.


Regardless of the conclusion of this essay, academic libraries are already giving preference to electronic forms of material. Here are quotes from the collection management documents of three Australian university libraries:

University of South Australia Library (Parnell, n.d.): “Online versions of information resources are acquired in preference to those in print or analogue form.”

University of New South Wales Library (Andrew Wells, 2010): “UNSW Library will purchase electronic versions of material in preference to print/hardcopy. ”

University of Tasmania Library (UTAS Library, 2010): “... as much as possible is provided in electronic format ...” and “Where a journal is available electronically, this is the preferred ‘format’ and print subscriptions will not be placed or continued other than in special circumstances. Where it is possible existing print journals will be replaced by an electronic format subject to quality electronic access.”


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1In this essay, except in the history section, “electronic journal” is meant to be taken as those journals that are published and/or available via the World Wide Web, as compared to electronic journals distributed on CD-ROM or other methods on the Internet (such as FTP (file transfer protocol), or by email). It is accepted that this maybe potentially confusing, and it is no doubt technically incorrect. It is, however, the usage that is used most often in the literature (a problem also noted by (Harter & Kim, 1996)).

2Articles that are simply scanned images from print journals (normally embedded in a PDF (portable document format) file) may not have all the specific advantages.

3The authors use the term “higher education libraries”, rather than “academic libraries”, but the point is the same.

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