Paperless at last

1 January 2014 marks a watershed moment for my library: I have cancelled the last of our print journal subscriptions.

Back in 1995 we subscribed to our first online journal, Journal of Biological Chemistry, from Highwire Press. I still have the email which announced:

We are pleased to announce that a World Wide Web version of the Journal of Biological Chemistry is now available for testing. Beginning with the April 14, 1995 issue, the full-text of all articles, including images are available. The URL is:

After opening the JBC Home Page, we recommend that users read the “JBC Online Handbook” so that they can configure their machines properly. Netscape version 1.1 is the recommended (and the only supported) browser for accessing the Internet version of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

This was, to the best of my recollection, the first online production version of a mainstream bioscience journal, though there had been a great deal of other development activity (including publishers sending out their journals on CDROM! We had a drawerfull but never used them).

During the years 1995-2000 we gradually built up our portfolio of online journals corresponding to our print journal subscriptions, so we had both print and online in parallel.  In 2000 a JBC editorial celebrated the journal’s 5th year of being online, saying:

Now virtually every life science journal, as well as journals of many other disciplines, publish online.

Declan Butler reported in Nature in 1999, in a fascinating round up of publishing at the time, that one Danish library had:

decided to phase out print altogether, and deliver journals direct to staff desktops via the World-Wide Web.

Many librarians (including me) were more hesitant to abandon print, wanting reassurance on issues of continuity and archiving.

A joint ICSU/UNESCO symposium was held in 1996 to consider the issues raised by electronic publishing in science. The eminent biologist Joshua Lederberg addressed the conference and his talk makes interesting reading today – much of what he says still holds true.  He stated:  “Electronic materials need to be archived”. Print journals were archived by libraries, but the model that was adopted for publishing electronic journals meant that the publishers held the content of the journals in digital form. Would the publishers commit to longterm archiving, and if not who would? This was an issue that gnawed at librarians’ souls – we wanted to embrace the e-future but didn’t want to abandon our archival duties. This was much-discussed in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Initiatives such as LOCKSS (1999) and Portico (2002), together with the activities of various national libraries, began to provide that reassurance (though there are still fears that not everything is adequately preserved). Thus libraries began to cancel print subscriptions, relying only on the online versions of journals.

I was a bit slow to join the print cancellation trend. I didn’t want to race ahead of our library users, many of whom still seemed uneasy about the idea of relying on online journals.  I remember getting comments such as “I no longer use the print journals, but I like to know that they are there” and “it would be unthinkable for an institute like this not to have PNAS on the shelves”. But by the mid 2000s I could hold off no longer and I did begin to cancel – at first cancelling print subscriptions that would save us money, picking off a few more each year. Then I cut print titles even when we would make no direct saving by so doing (thanks to the vagaries of publisher pricing and UK VAT anomalies). It made no sense to spend staff time on processing printed issues that hardly anybody ever read, so I kept on pruning.

Thus for the last few years we have had only a handful of print titles: those that seemed too important to lose (e.g. Science, Nature), those that were not important enough for us to purchase higher-priced online versions (e.g. New Scientist, Scientific American) and one or two that our agent insisted were not available online only.

This year I have finally cancelled this last clutch of print titles. The usage of even these titles proved very low so I don’t think that anyone will notice. Fingers crossed that there is no internet apocalypse. Now, where did I put those old CDROMs?

(Footnote: If you are interested in how ejournals developed, Martin White traces some more of the history of ejournal development in a 2012 article.)

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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6 Responses to Paperless at last

  1. That’s pretty amazing, Frank. I love this line: ““I no longer use the print journals, but I like to know that they are there”. As if “there” isn’t a quality that a webpage can possess.

    They are also useful for lining shelves to make your feel more professorial. (I get a few unsolicited clinical journals as I have to be a member of certain societies to get reduced attendance at the meetings. I never crack them open but they look good in my office.)

  2. Frank says:

    Jenny, yes that was a bit of ‘head-desk’ moment! But perhaps not so unusual 10-15 years ago, when many people were not sure whether ‘online’ was really permanent. Online was seen as something evanescent, and it was common to hear questions about whether online-only journals were really respectable or not.

    I often see photo portraits here taken against the backdrop of our library shelves (e.g. this of Ita Askonas and this of Katrin Rittinger). Bound journal volumes on a shelf convey that aura of scholasticity. I see that one of the recent MRC videos has John McCauley talking about flu, with our Library journals behind him.

  3. cromercrox says:


    That brought back memories.

  4. Heather says:

    Congratulations – I haven’t consulted a print version of a journal for my own discipline, except when bored in someone else’s office – in many years. On the other hand, for my entertainment, I do like receiving print journals (I’m thinking in particular of The American Scientist, which has sort of forced me into accepting PDFs or an online browser I despise, when I really like slipping a copy in my bag for overnight business trips on airplane takeoffs and landings).

    • Frank says:

      Heather – I have a feeling of freedom, somehow. I am not adding to the pile of printed stuff any longer.

      Yes, there are times when a physical copy has advantages. Mention of airplanes makes me think of those free Airline magazines that most of us probably browse for about 2 minutes before putting back in the seat pocket in front of us. I wonder if they will ever go paperless?

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