Paper or electronic journals?

Hospitals are not alone in having to come to terms with the volume of space occupied by paper records.  Shops, banks, armed services, schools, and libraries are all facing the same issues.  The Bodleian library in Oxford, simultaneously blessed and cursed by being a copyright library and therefore entitled to receive a copy of every book published in England, exploded, almost literally, in 2010 when it moved a huge store of books to an industrial estate in Swindon, as described here
The number of pieces of paper in the form of books, journals and files of various kinds is growing too quickly for physical storage to be feasible.  It’s a slightly obvious point to make, but I’ll bash on with it:  back in September, 1964, when the first issue of the Journal of Medical Genetics appeared,  there wasn’t a storage problem because there were no back issues of this journal.  Now, as the 50th anniversary approaches, back issues occupy almost half of a wall of our departmental library.
When this is added to the piles of case notes currently reproducing themselves in our department, there is a serious storage problem.  It’s not quite as acute as the storage issue in the picture below, but it’s not a million miles away from it either.


 Which is better, paper or electronic?  People seem to prefer paper journals because they can be picked up and browsed. But maybe that seems better because that is what we are used to. Would people who had never been exposed to paper journals feel the same?  Unusually for me, I picked up a paper copy of the Journal of Medical Genetics the other day and had a flick through. There is no doubt that browsing through a paper version of an article, or entire journal, is a nicer experience than trying to do the same thing electronically. But then, I was brought up on paper. It’s hard to know how much of this ease of use is becauseof that, and how much reflects the fact that it genuinely is easier. We may never know.
Recently, and rather naively as it turned out, I ventured to suggest to my colleagues in Exeter that, since all the journals that we stock are now available electronically (leaving aside pre-1990 or so issues) our department would benefit from disposal of all paper journals with a move to reliance on electronic archives.  This did not go well. While some people agreed, others offered their   opposition to the idea in robust terms.
Needless to say, I remain on the side of electronic rather than paper storage and would like to put the case for the advantages of electronic journal articles, other than those related to space-saving:
  • Electronic articles can be read on our PCs, where we look at just about everything else these days
  • In finding a particular article, it is quicker and more convenient to go to the online index rather than go to the library and search through the rows of hard copies on the shelves
  •  If individual journal issues are held loosely rather than bound, as they are in most departmental libraries, breath-holding, while you establish whether or not the issue that you want is actually there, is not required
  •   If you like the article and want to make a copy, you don’t have to go through the laborious, expensive and irritating process of photocopying it
  •    You can search the article electronically for any key-word, rather than scan a paper copy repeatedly for the bit that you are interested in.  This is really important!
  •  The electronic version of an article can be linked directly to a patient’s electronic patient record, in the same way as a photocopied article could be filed in the patient’s notes

·      Let’s face it, we are in a period of major transition at the moment, between paper and digital storage formats. At some point in around 2163, the last piece of paper will have disappeared from Clinical Genetics Departments in the UK, but until we reach that happy state, compromise will continue to be needed. We’ll keep the paper journals (for now).
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