Bookless Libraries

A friend sent me word of yet another library that is replacing its books with computer work stations. In this case it is the library at Cushing Academy, a New England prep school. The school is spending millions to build a digital learning center filled with computer stations, laptop friendly study carrels, and large flat screen TVs that will project data from the Internet. The headmaster reports he sees books as an “outmoded technology.”

Still more and more books are being printed each year. However, the number of library books in circulation is not growing in tandem as most librarians report that their circulation figures are holding steady or decreasing. In contrast, digital use has increased significantly with a dramatic increase in “hits” to library electronic databases.

Another result of the digital revolution is the allocation of library funds with a major shift away from books to electronic resources. In 1998 the library at the University of Texas in Austin spent roughly 5% percent of its annual materials budget on electronic resources and 30% on monographs. In only three years, those allocations were reversed so that in 2001 20% was spent on electronic materials and only 15% on monographs. Virtually every library in this country reports comparable trends.

New library designs, as well as renovations of older ones, call for storing books in buildings apart from the library computer centers. A major renovation at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities library eliminated the libraries book stacks and moved them to the basement or elsewhere on the campus to provide space for computer labs and a digital media center.

What will be gained and lost by the digital transformation of libraries? When I used to study in the library, every once in a while I’d take a little “study break” to wander up and down the aisles, checking the titles of the books that caught my eye. This kind of exploration will no longer be possible in the new bookless library. There will no discovery of that unknown book that you subsequently found indispensable. Thomas Benton has recently described the importance of such moments in the process of doing research.

I remember one time I was writing about Edgar Allan Poe and phrenology when I found a box of ephemera—not catalogued in any detail—that included a pamphlet for a book by an early psychologist who analyzed Poe on the basis of daguerreotypes of the poet. I quickly found the book in another area of the same library, and discovered a sequence of pages that purported to show that Poe was suffering from a disorder that affected only one hemisphere of his brain and that revealed itself in the asymmetry of his face…that accidental discovery—the centerpiece of a subsequent article—would never have been made but for the serendipity and convenience of the stacks.

How often I recall a similar experience in my own research in the library. I would go in search of a particular bound volume of a journal. Accidentally I’d pick out the wrong volume and beginning scanning the pages, only to discover another article, perhaps even more important than the one I was searching for and that, in turn, led me on a path of further inquiry that would never had occurred if I was searching for the article online. Who has not had the pleasure of discovering such an article by thumbing through the journals of their discipline?

A few months ago I went back to the library to try to locate the date of an article in The New Yorker that I had copied many years ago. Fortunately, the bound volumes of the magazine that has been published week after week since 1925 were still on the shelves in the stacks. I thought for more than a moment about the remarkable treasures contained within those pages--Capote, Cheever, Flanner, Nabokov, O’Hara, Thurber, Salinger, etc. And then I ploughed into the volume that I thought might have the article I was seeking.

I opened the cover, and began reading the Talk of the Town, the section where I was certain the little piece was located. I started reading and kept reading, page after page that I know I had read before but seemed as timely and as fresh as they first did at first reading. I didn’t find the article. It didn’t matter for I was overtaken by the pleasure of reading once again those few pages in but a single issue in one bound volume on the shelf along with countless other bound volumes of the magazine. I wonder what will become of all those priceless volumes in the new bookless library?