In some recent New Yorker (I'm a little behind), Anthony Grafton has a piece about the history of organizing information. One of his points is that we've always had too much information, and we've always been worried about how to access what we need, so the whole "oh my god the internet search engine is going to change everything" isn't, maybe, the paradigm shift you might have thought.
That's fine. And his discussion of the history of information is fun and interesting.
Toward the end, Grafton starts talking about how much things will change with Google et al. digitizing books. His first point is that things won't change much because all they're doing, really, is scanning things in and allowing us to search them; it's not anything so dramatic.
And then he gets into that whole "irreplaceability of the book" thing. You know, we have to have books; we can't live without them; do what you want with the whole "intertubes" thing but eventually you're going to have to get your ass to the library and get the wood pulp product off the shelf.
This line always gets on my nerves, even though I'm probably as great a lover of the old-fashioned book as you'll find anywhere. Books are just nice: you can take them to bed, take them to the sofa, flip the pages back and forth, blah blah blah, this ground has all been well-covered.
But the Grafton point isn't that books are a pleasure but rather that they are irreplaceable sources of knowledge -- knowledge you can't get from digital archives. What's the evidence? As far as I could tell the only evidence he offers is that some people get some information from some physical books. Like, some historians smell books to see if they smell like vingar, to see if they were sprinkled to avoid disease, to see if there were outbreaks.
OK, I admit this is information you get from physical books, but really, most of us are not in the vinegar-book-business, nor are we in the paper-analysis business, or any other business other than just reading the words that are written down. For the vast majority of purposes, the digital version does just fine.
It matters, because books are freaking expensive compared to digitized access. And if we're going to spend money -- communal money -- on them, we'd better have some good reasons. After all, there are people who need food and shelter.
There may indeed be good reasons for pouring money into the communal purchase of books. But knowing whether old ones smell like vinegar isn't one of them. It isn't even in the right ballpark.