UPDATED WITH LINKY GOODNESS BELOW
It’s probably already happened at your institution–university libraries are built at a certain moment in time with certain assumptions about the kinds of growth and collections storage they’ll need in the future. Given the expanded role they’ve been expected to play in the past twenty years as sites that offer PCs, web access, and access to digital collections and databases, on top of the books and journals they continue to purchase and store, more and more libraries are moving to off-site storage for their older and/or less frequently used volumes. (Baa Ram U. has off-site storage books that are usually delivered in a day or two. It’s understandable–we’ve been here since 1870, so you have to have priorities.)
Syracuse University library had a plan to move half of their collection to a storage facility 250 miles away–and the faculty and students revolted Wednesday night (h/t Inside Higher Ed):
[M]ore than 200 faculty and students flocked to first public airing of the issue, a University Senate meeting. Some held signs protesting the proposal (one read “FREE BIRD”). Some spoke against the move on the grounds that library space had been misallocated while others questioned the need to ship the books so far away from campus. Faculty members delivered a petition against the plan signed by more than 100 humanities scholars, whose fields would be hurt more than others by the book relocation.
. . . . . . . . . .
The reason [for the plan to move so much of the collection off-site] . . . is that the library has shifted to become a Learning Commons, a building that houses books, but also has a cafe, study spaces and classrooms. “The library has tripled in use since creating the Learning Commons,” she said. “It is a key place where lots of things happen, but some people see it as a distancing away from the true purpose of a library. I see it as moving closer to that.”
How with the price of gas at $2.50-3.00 again can driving books back and forth 500 miles round-trip make economic or environmental sense? Are more coffee stands and seminar rooms really worth all that?
There’s no question that libraries are being used differently these days than they were even 15 years ago. At Baa Ram U., students can check out laptops if they don’t have their own, or they can sit at various PC terminals to use the web or write papers. I get the impression that a lot of students use the library in-between classes as a place to go to get warm, catch up on homework, and/or to study with friends. This is all to the good–quite frankly, because of the web access and computing facilities, libraries seem a lot busier than they did when I was in college and grad school.
Back then (ca. 1986-96), the only time the library was Standing Room Only was during finals week. And even back then, some students rarely darkened the door of the library or bothered to check out a book. I used to go to the library at my undergraduate college because it was such a quiet and usually rather deserted place to work. I remember being asked as a grad student for help by a young man who was having trouble using the Library of Congress system to find a book. It was late in the spring, and I expressed amazement that he had managed to get all the way through Freshman year without having visited the library. He then informed me smugly that he was actually a Junior. When I asked him what his major was, he said, “Creative Writing,” a major that I had thought would require at least a little bit of reading in addition to all of that awesomely creative writing. You never know–some of those students who are working away on their computers now just might get up, walk over to a bookshelf, and grab a book! It could happen.
Speaking as a historian–we still need the damn books. As many of the commenters over at Inside Higher Ed point out, there are other buildings that can be built or repurposed to create more seminar rooms, coffee stands, and spaces where students can hang out in-between classes, so it seems short-sighted to clear the library of books. I have a feeling that something similar is afoot at Baa Ram U., because last year we were asked to fill out several surveys about our use of the libraries and to account for our use of books, journals, and digital resources. A friend of mine was involved in tabulating the results, and he said that I was the voice of one crying in the wilderness with my plea for books in the library. The vast majority of students and faculty were pushing for more of the library to go digital, and to dump the books and the space and resources needed to shelve them. (This is unsurprising, given the Aggie school emphasis on the sciences, engineering, and the veternary medical school. And the fact that even many of the departments in the Liberal Arts college are very article-based rather than book-centered–Political Science, Economics, Sociology, Communication, etc.) I get that–and I probably use and read more journal articles in both my teaching and research now because of on-line databases and full-text services.
It’s fine with me if most departments don’t want shelf space or books–that’s more room for the rest of us. Just leave our book budgets as intact as possible, turn our main library into the “BigDonorNameHere Library for the Humanities,” and let us set the priorities for book purchases. What do I care if Vet Med faculty never pick up a book, so long as they leave mine alone?
What’s going on at your university? Are you facing the prospect of the bookless library, too?
UPDATE, 11/15/09: As Undine noted in the first comment below, she has blogged about the bookless library in general, and on the importance of libraries as special public spaces. Go read, especially this:
- They’re one of the last public spaces around that don’t require you to (1) do something or (2) buy something, and yet they offer you riches in return: books.
- Yes, this is latent romanticism showing its face, but if you love books, you like being around them–leafing through them, admiring the covers, paying attention to the slick or rough feeling of old paper, the impress of the type, and everything else. You get ideas. The connection of past with present work and future possibilities is stimulating.
- Browsing the shelves, you’ll see things that you might not see with even the most assiduous and well-informed search.
- You’re around people, but you don’t have to talk to them. Because it’s a public space, it’s energizing in a way that being at home isn’t.
- You can sit and read, and read, and read, without anyone asking you if you want anything (a refill, a different book). There’s an assumption of privacy within public spaces that’s hard to come by anywhere else.
- A library is quiet, or at least mostly quiet. You aren’t hearing people nattering away but saying absolutely nothing on cell phones.
What is a library without books? It’s the Geography of Nowhere contained within a building, mimeticly reproduced across the landscape. (One of the things I’ve always loved, as a library connoisseur, is that each library is different, and has its distinctive strengths and weaknesses in its collection. If libraries become mere computer labs and sites for wireless access, there’s no more therethere.) It sure seems like these bookless libraries are violating Stanley Fish’s good advice to university faculty: “[d]o your job, don’t try to do someone else’s job and don’t let anyone else do your job.” If libraries cede their historic function as a repository of human knowledge and become more concerned about the coffee carts and other amenities they offer their patrons than books, then they’re permitting any Starbucks or airport with wireless access to serve as “libraries,” and violating the first two tenets of Fish’s advice as well.
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