Copy Machines in Libraries Are ‘Going the Way of the Dodo’—Slowly

Digital Learning

Copy Machines in Libraries Are ‘Going the Way of the Dodo’—Slowly

By Jennifer Howard     Jun 4, 2018

Copy Machines in Libraries Are ‘Going the Way of the Dodo’—Slowly

The printed book just won’t die. But another print-based technology—the copy machine—is disappearing from many academic libraries, as librarians swap the old dime-eating machines for multi-function devices that scan texts and send copies to students via email.

“Copiers seem to be going the way of the dodo, slowly,” says Stephanie Walker, dean of libraries and information resources at the University of North Dakota.

The switch from copiers to scanners makes sense in the hybrid digital/print environment students and faculty operate in now. There’s also a financial incentive for academic libraries looking to economize and streamline operations and provide patrons with the services they most need. And in at least one case, the rise of the scanner has created an opportunity for an academic library to engage in a little community-minded entrepreneurship, providing fellow libraries with a customized computer/scanner/software bundle that won’t break the bank.

Walker witnessed the beginning of the end for copiers in her previous job at Brooklyn College, where she worked from 2006-2015. She was chief librarian and executive director of academic IT from 2008 until she left. Copier use declined “the minute we brought in scanners,” she says. With the copiers, “suddenly nobody was using them any more, because the scanners were free.” Why pay a dime a page when you can scan what you need, get it via email, and print it out at home or at a college printing station?

Budget pressures have hastened the switch from copiers to scanners. Walker took the top library job at North Dakota in 2015, at a time when a downsized state budget created a sense of urgency around saving money. “One of the things we looked at was our copier leases,” she says. “We were paying leases that substantially exceeded the money made off them.”

The library staff first pulled all the public copiers from the university’s medical library and then, several months ago, from the main library. “Nobody complained,” Walker says. “The student response was a giant shrug.” The only copiers left on the premises are for staff use. If a patron really wants hard copies, “we make them at cost, about 10 cents a page for black and white, more for color,” she says. But librarians don’t get many requests for Xeroxes—one or two a week, mostly from community members.

When Scott Russell arrived at Western Michigan University a couple of years ago, 14 coin-operated copiers still took up space in the libraries. Student workers made regular rounds to collect change from the machines and check paper and toner, all for a few dollars a year in copier revenue, says Russell, director of IT services for Western Michigan’s libraries.

The solution: Get rid of half the old copiers and promote the use of multi-function scanner/printer/copiers instead. “We have multi-function machines just about everywhere,” Russell says—eight in the main library alone. “We started encouraging students to use a scan-to-email function, which was not operational when I got here.” In six months, Russell estimates, email traffic doubled, which suggests to him that the scan-to-email service caught on quickly.

Because the machines are networked, they automatically alert the vendor that supplies them when they need attention. That means the library’s student workers and staff don’t have to waste time collecting small change. “It’s just a savings all the way around,” Russell says.

The decline of the copier hasn’t translated to a drop in paper use, however. “We’re supposed to be in this paperless society, but we still see very heavy use” of printing services, Russell says. One-click wireless printing available in a newly redone area of the main library has fed students’ persistent desire to print. “We see a ton more usage over there,” Russell says.

The wireless-printing system went live in July 2017. By September, about 12,000 pages were printed using it; by October, that number climbed to 22,000, with subsequent months holding at about the same, according to Russell.

Unless they’re printing a huge number of pages, students don’t feel the direct pinch of printing costs. At many if not most universities, they get a printing credit or allotment bundled into their tuition and fees. At Western Michigan, they receive 500 tokens a semester; one black-and-white page printout costs 1 token. (A color page costs 10 tokens.) If they exceed their quota, they get charged a few cents a page.

At Augsburg University, in Minneapolis, students also get a 500-page credit at the beginning of the semester. There, too, copying has given way to scanning, says Mike Bloomberg, the digital and research services librarian.

Faculty and students at Augsburg all have fobs that give them access to buildings on campus and connect them to the library’s multi-function devices, making scan-to-email an easy and quick option. “You can just walk up to the machine and it’ll sense your email address,” Bloomberg says.

What do students want to print with their tokens and credits? “Everything,” says UND’s Stephanie Walker. That includes term papers, journal articles, book chapters and sometimes whole books, although universities will post copyright laws next to printer/scanner machines to remind students that snagging a copy of an entire textbook is generally a no-no.

Professors have a hand in printing’s persistence. Mitchell Walker, who just graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park with an undergraduate degree in English, says that some professors there expect students to print out book chapters or other class-related material.

“A couple of my professors had pretty strict no-screen policies during class,” he says. Readings for those courses “were one type of document I would print pretty reliably.”

He also scanned portions of books he used for his undergraduate thesis. “I would scan the chapter that was relevant to me and email it to myself with the bibliographic information,” he says. “It was pretty intuitive.”

Although he’s not averse to digital texts, Mitchell likes working with paper. “I like the visceral experience of being able to write on and annotate by hand,” he says. “I’m sure it’s every bit as effective to use software to annotate on a screen.” But, he says, “I’ve never used an old-fashioned copy machine on campus.”

Entrepreneurs in the Library

At Brooklyn College, part of the CUNY system, the switch from copiers to scanners led to an excellent opportunity for the library to get creative and do a good turn for other institutions at the same time. Stephanie Walker, who was chief librarian there at the time, actively promoted an entrepreneurial approach to solving library and IT challenges.

Howard Spivak is the current director of academic information technologies at the college. The big problem, he says, wasn’t moving away from copiers but finding a scanner that was good enough and still cheap and simple enough for general use.

“You don’t want to buy a cheap scanner because it will break,” he says. But “the best scanner turns out to be the most complicated scanner,” designed to handle sophisticated jobs as well as the basic stuff most students need to do. As one model superseded another, librarians at the college had to field more and more how-to questions—so many questions that they asked Spivak’s group to run workshops on scanning.

The IT department decided instead to keep a few of the sophisticated scanners for patrons who needed them but to come up with a simpler setup for general use. Bundled technology was available from some library vendors, but equipment rental plus maintenance fees made that option too pricey.

“We put together our own unit at a fraction of the price,” Spivak says. “This was on our side a thrown-together system. It consists of three parts: a computer, a scanner and software,” which the library paid programmers to create. The design aimed for the press-button-get-copy simplicity that copiers used to offer, with a couple of bells and whistles added, including networked printing. Users also had to acknowledge a copyright notice before they could scan something.

Some of Brooklyn College’s sister schools in the CUNY system got wind of the DIY solution and started asking if they could buy scanning bundles too, so Brooklyn College started a “We wanted other schools to have this scanning technology at the cheapest possible price,” Spivak says. “They own the computer, they own the software.”

The bundle costs about $3,400, approximately half of what a commercial vendor would charge, according to Spivak, with some of the fee going to offset development costs and pay the software developers. Add in the fact that buyers get free updates and don’t have to pay for a multi-year maintenance fee, and that adds still more savings.

So far, Brooklyn College has sold about 100 bundles, most of them to other in-state schools, all through world of mouth. “We did it as something to help fellow libraries, not to make money,” Spivak says. “These are not terribly difficult to create and put together. The thing we still debate is how to add new features and keep it simple.”

Editor's Note: This article originally misstated the years of Stephanie Walker's employment at Brooklyn College and her title there. It has been updated.

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