Fig. 1 An informal engineering library
A personal library can be a valuable asset. Before the internet, it was usually the first ‘port of call’, the first available source of reference material on engineering theory and practice. And it is something one can value and cherish, like an old friend.
In the field of libraries, a second ‘port of call’ is the company library, which is often a repository of data and written material relevant to the company’s products, and tending more towards practices and standards than pure theory. Some of this material may be historical, but in modern times much of it is stored electronically in databases with various levels of structure. Today, probably few companies maintain traditional libraries of books and journals, because of the costs and the less-than-obvious link between the library and the profit line. The costs are not insignificant, involving the maintenance of suitable storage space, the upkeep of subscriptions, the purchase of new books, and the staff.
While the personal library and the company library are close at hand, to go further one must visit a university library or an institutional libary such as the IET Library in London or the Mitchell Library in Glasgow (once the largest reference library in Europe). A few universities maintain specialist collections in electric machines engineering, notably the University of Hannover in Germany; while others are rich in foreign-language journals and historical material.
The costs of establishing and maintaining even a specialist traditional library are beyond the means of the average engineer or small company. But there is also a vast and growing corpus of on-line publishing that can be accessed without making a trip to the traditional library. On-line publishing covers almost every category of written material except out-of-print books and journals, although even these (especially books) are propagated through on-line sales and some of them are reproduced as scans or reprints to a much greater degree than before the days of the internet. On-line publishing has also extended the range of media beyond the printed book or journal, especially the video and the on-line seminar. For students the learning environment has changed dramatically, and the same is true for the continued learning practised by so many at all levels of human enterprise.
We can see a migration of the library function from printed media (books and journals) to the computer and even the mobile telephone. The reader must now pay for these facilities all the time, as well as maintaining subscriptions to sites of learning or information. He or she must also pay continuously for electricity and internet access. Contrast this with the cost of a few good books that might last for decades with very little upkeep cost, needing nothing more than daylight to access their contents.
On-line reference material is now so extensive that we must be thankful for facilities such as Google Scholar™ to find our way through it. But even the largest on-line library resources (such as IEEE Xplore™) are limited in scope, and it may be expensive for individuals to access certain items. There is also a considerable amount of historical, transient, or obscure material that is not visible on the internet, as it has never been scanned or even catalogued. Some gems may be found here, but usually more by luck or by reference than by systematic searching. At the same time there is very little structure or even filtering of technical material on the internet, so if you watch a video on, say, Maxwell’s equations, or (more likely) How to run a three-phase motor on a single-phase supply, how can you be sure it is correct or even safe? And how can you chart a course through the tumultuous oceans of information, to acquire a structured understanding of a deeply technical subject?
One of the most valuable resources is the second-hand book market, where we can find specialist booksellers and even institutions and companies who make it their business to scan historic material and make print versions available with professional bindings. But even here the costs are becoming a problem as the value of rare books becomes recognized, and sometimes absurd prices are charged even for books that are not truly rare, or have little relevance to modern engineering. It is sometimes the case that the old books explain the original reasons for things, while the modern books merely recite in ever-dumber terms what the student needs to know for the examinations.
In my teaching activity I often recommend my students to collect their own favourite books — not the ones on the recommended book-lists, but the ones that give them the clearest and most comfortable account of things they like to study. In my own case some of the books I bought as a student in 1968 turned out to be the ones I used most for the next 50 years. One example is the International Student Edition of Fitzgerald & Kingsley, Electric Machinery (printed in Japan). My copy is now fragile, and even its brown paper cover is somewhat tattered. The second-hand price is still scrawled in ink inside the front cover — 18/- which means eighteen shillings or nine-tenths of a pound (roughly a dollar). There must have been a hundred subsequent undergraduate textbooks on electric machinery after this, but to me it seemed that many of them were striving vainly to be different from Fitzgerald & Kingsley, and not doing the job quite as well.
I might add that in following (and diluting) Fitzgerald & Kingsley, many of them made the same ‘mistake’ of turning the undergraduate education of electrical engineers away from design in the direction of system analysis. In that direction lay the circuit behaviour of the electric machine, at the expense of its electromagnetic field behaviour, while books on the calculation of electromagnetic fields in the design context were rare. Most books on electromagnetics were mathematically difficult for the day-to-day machine designer, with only limited scope in dealing with real-world design — this may still be true even today — and we can see why the modern machine designer may value a library of technical software at least as much as a pile of old books on conformal transformation or the method of moments. There are some areas where material that is formulated or programmed in software lies far beyond the reach of any traditional library. But all that is for another Diary.
For me an even better bargain was an inherited copy of M.G. Say’s Performance and Design of AC Machines, 1947 edition, which cost me nothing and which I used continuously for more than 55 years. It started out in pristine condition when I acquired it in 1967, but now it is well worn and held together by an old brown paper cover. It goes with the 1947 Electrical Engineer’s Reference Book and Machinery’s Handbook — together nearly 4,000 pages of exquisite engineering data occupying no more than five inches of shelf space. Obsolete? Only in places. Valuable? Priceless!
So today I would recommend to any young engineer to build a personal library — of physical books, printed on paper. Is this a waste of natural resources? No, because many of the older books worth reading were printed before global warming started to accelerate (i.e., in the last 30 years), while we are told that most of the new ones are printed on paper from sustainable sources (just like greeting cards). If we don’t preserve them, they’ll end up as waste paper.
The free books — the ones inherited from retired colleagues or relatives — are often the best value. Then you have the ones in secondhand student bookshops, which may be dog-eared, annotated, and tatty; but occasionally cheap, and they can often be preserved in brown paper covers (like my Fitzgerald & Kingsley) and kept going for another 50 years. Sometimes it makes sense to have a professional bookbinder replace the cover, as with the classics by Ewing and Morley in the figure. (That is less expensive than you might expect).
Do we need books at all? Ask your colleagues. Even in the age of the computer, when everything is on-line? Yes! On-line material often lacks stability and authority, and may be difficult to verify or authenticate. Not everything is on-line, and what is on-line is a completely different genre, a different experience, often designed for quick assimilation or purely practical utility rather than deep contemplative study. Look around your office. Are your colleagues engaged in deep contemplative study? Maybe they are, but some of them, to be sure, will have a favourite textbook hidden in a desk drawer.