By Ernest Rubinstein, Ph.D., Theological Librarian

The library is a wistful place. It attests to the counterfactual. It does so through the books it holds, but also by the very structure that orders the books. That Structure is abstract, intellectual, Platonic. It is an organic object of formal beauty. It aims to survey and embrace the whole breadth and depth of human knowledge.

The Structure comprises classification schemes, subject terms, authority files, thesauri, record formats, standards that command obedience. It presumes to encompass a unique place for every conceivable book, even before it is published, marked by the call number and description assigned it. That unique identity assigned a book, we trust, makes it more retrievable to whomever might want it. For researchers in a subject matter, the Structure promises more relevant and on-topic retrievals, for those who take the time to work with it. We take that to be factual.

But now comes the counterfactual— the very Structure that we trust to readily expose a book to the searcher’s eye also conceals it. For the Structure is not only wide, tall, and imposing—it is sometimes arcane, counter-intuitive, and frustrating. That is why librarians are needed—to
navigate the Structure, almost like Brother Malachi in the sublime novel, The Name of the Rose, who not only knows by heart the location of every book in his labyrinthine library, but even judges who has the spiritual and intellectual maturity to read them. Actual librarians are not so presumptuous. On the contrary, we are now donning a new humility.

For alongside the Structure a new means of accessing books has arisen. It is called Google Books. Google Books, an access mechanism for online books, bypasses the Structure. Google
Books provides entry to books by way of the keyword search. The keyword retrieves a book by the match it makes to any occurrence of itself within the book, which opens, via Google Books, onto the very page(s) where it occurs. The catch: by copyright restrictions, Google Books can mostly expose only parts of books.

Since the advent of online, librarians have known about keyword searches. But we have disdained them, just because they bypass the Structure. But now we celebrate the keyword as part of a new excitement in the world of books: the database of fulltext, online books. An online book is itself counterfactual. It does not exist in the tactile way we know and love. Can we love an online book? Perhaps the ancients asked the same of manuscript books when, centuries ago, they  superseded the older forms of scroll and tablet.

Databases of fulltext online books go Google Books one better, since they offer up books in their fullness. An example is Ebrary Academic Complete, which lists on our roster of databases ( ). Ebrary collects over 70,000 online books and renders them receptive to keyword searches.

Enter any term in the search box. All the books within Ebrary containing that term are retrieved. They list by title. Click on any of those titles and the online book itself appears. Click on the icon resembling a magnifying glass and the sought word appears highlighted on the very page(s) that holds it. Highlight or annotate portions of the book and save your comments to a private  workspace of your own within the database. Convert a chapter (under 60 pages) to pdf format and download it to your computer. Soon, by way of Adobe Digitial Editions, a free software available online, we should be able to download whole books onto our computers and even some e-readers, to reside there on borrowed time, a week perhaps, after which the data self-destructs or garbles.

Ebrary books may change our habits of reading. Highlighted keywords encourage a strategic reading that omits from view all but the immediate contexts of those words. Terms that capture
the same idea in alternate phrasings may go unnoticed. The larger argument may not register. But strategic reading reduces our time at the computer screen and frees us all the sooner for
the next task.

By all accounts, our patrons love Ebrary. It serves the distance learner especially well. Ebrary is rich with potential. Currently, we do not own most of the books that appear in the database. In effect, we rent them on a yearly basis. By a new method of book selection, called Patron Driven Acquisitions (PDA), we can implement a mechanism that purchases an online, rented book for us after a patron has clicked a sufficient number of times on it. Number of clicks—to turn a page,
highlight a passage, annotate a section—measures patron need of a book. The book is purchased without intercession of librarians.And where are the librarians in this poststructuralist world? Counterfactually, we remain on hand, faithful to the old Structure, whose refinements continue to evolve and serve, even as we herald the new.

– This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Visions, the Library Newsletter