The bookless library



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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Browsing the shelves, you’ll see things that you might not see with even the most assiduous and well-informed search.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

0 thoughts on “The bookless library

  1. This trend in ridding libraries of books scares me, and I’ve been posting (all right, ranting) about it. So far, I haven’t seen a move toward wholesale book removal at Northern Clime U, but it’s clear that, as you say, you and I and other humanities types are voices crying in the wilderness.


  2. We have no budget for books and have not had for some time. Now we are cutting journal subscriptions. However, a learning commons with cafe and so on is being built in the library. This when total higher education cuts in this state by 2012 will have our budget at about 40% of what the 2008 budget was, we are told.


  3. …but I’m told that none of those faculty raised an eyebrow when the library had to lay off 20 staff members early in the semester because of costs.

    At our school, we’re not facing a bookless library, as far as I’m aware. Well, maybe we are, in another sense: the library has no clue which of their holdings have gone missing, which seems to be a frequent problem. We’d just love it if they’d do a damn inventory – that’s our big problem: many books missing, and no system for figuring out where they’ve gone or, even better, what EXACTLY is missing.


  4. Our library is “Not what other research libraries are, what they will be”. Since we’re a new institution, we have a small book collection on site (thank the Goddess for interlibrary loan, which is efficient). Lots of online access to journals and databases though (except that the budget crisis causes problems with THAT). The library was designed as a “learning commons”, with lots of study rooms and spaces. It also does the laptop rental thing. It’s very busy. But I’m always amazed at how little students know about how to use all the electronic resources. For all their computer savvy, they don’t hold this knowledge, although it’s taught.


  5. I totally agree that we still need books. But do we need hard copies of books in our own personal libraries? I’m not sure.

    Back in the olden times where hard-copy books ruled the day, my university library (a relatively young one, as things go) really sucked. In the newfangled times of electronic books (which many books in the humanities are available as, and which increases availability to students and faculty) and expanded abilities with ILL, not to mention database access for journal articles, my library has actually *improved* – both for students and for faculty. I think that for universities who’ve only been collecting books since ~1970, say, and who don’t have endowments and who are underfunded compared with other state universities, say, that the move to the library without books is actually an improvement. The issue is accessibility of information – not the ability to check out a book at one’s own university. If I need to see an article in a book that we don’t own, I can get that sent to me via email. There is no need for me to see the entire book. In other words, for the PDF of this to be emailed to me, it hurts the environment not at all, and the cost is negligible. If I had to seek the entire book out from an off-site library, which I would have had to do in olden times, it would, but I no longer have to do that.

    When we’ve had arguments about how library building space is allocated at my university, it’s not been so much about wanting to preserve the space of un-checked-out books, but rather about wanting to have that space converted into classroom space as opposed to being converted into casual meeting space. This is because we are in *desperate* need of classroom space, whatever our library situation is.

    So while I get your advocacy for books in the library, I’ll say that my library situation has actually improved, even when paper acquisitions have decreased.


  6. You could write a whole freaking book filled with the breathless commentary of academic librarians damning books and praising information, lauding process and interactivity while reminding us how boring mere borrowing used to be. They’ve all been appropriately power-pointed on how students today think with non-linear imaginations because they grew up in non-linear social spaces, so all those long straight lines of shelving just shut down their creative souls. This is, it should be said, mostly your hard-charging careerist managerial librarians, not the good folks you meet at the checkout desk or working the stacks. It’s partly a cultural revolt against old American stereotypes about librarianship, but it also presumably makes it a lot easier for them to get along with the metrics freaks in the modern academic executive suite.

    I love getting scanned articles sent straight to my laptop, and the multi-library systematized borrowing consortiums are a great advance over the old-style ILL regimes. But the once hot notion that you can’t solve information age problems with bricks and mortar was the start of a long slippery slope. I’m convinced that research U. librarians are particularly clueless about the different WAYS that *disciplines* use library resources. If ingesting the latest issue of your basic _Journal of Hot Studies_ is your version of taking a dietary supplement, then yeah, morning or night, at Starbucks or on the train, paper or plastic, whatever works for you, no problem…. But historians don’t work like the experimental social scientists. We don’t write up the research protocol, then do the obligatory literature review, then gather data, then write up the results, in that neat–and largely mutually exclusive–order. The same recent article that is Historiann’s foil for a major historiographical take-down might have five tiny footnotes that send me in eight different directions in search of molecular-sized empirical nuggets that in turn each lead to two new avenues of inquiry. Telling me that Vol. XLIV of the _JHS_ will be delivered from remote storage tomorrow afternoon will find me at that time wondering why I ordered it yesterday morning. The same half-life of a a hot insight can be an amazingly transient thing. You need to be able to move fast from conceive to execute (or abandon), and to have multiple things open side by side at the same time to see the pattern. When they start building carrels with keyboards and ten to twelve discrete computer screens, that’s when I’ll go for the Information Commons paradigm.


  7. But, Dr. Crazy: if no one buys and shelves hard copies of books, then the books will disappear! Libraries like yours, and the one Susan describes, are leeches on a larger system. (They also have smaller budgets than the Big Research U. libraries they are leeching off of, so I’m not saying it’s a character flaw, it’s a budget flaw.) We can’t all just tell our libraries it’s OK not to buy books, we’ll just get them through ILL. At some point, libraries must assume responsibility for helping to maintain the system. (Doesn’t that bother you as an author of a book?)

    I too appreciate the digital innovations and the convenience of articles delivered to my PC desktop. But I shouldn’t have to choose between books or articles. (At least not until the men’s football and basketball teams are turned into club sports, and the entire athletic department budget has been zeroed out and put in the library and instructional budgets.)

    Tanya raises a great point about the layoffs of the librarians–I think that was a travesty. But, the linked article doesn’t say the faculty didn’t raise a stink over that–it just talks about the stink they made over books being taken out of the main library. (You may have local or more up-to-date information about Syracuse–I don’t know, but we can’t condemn the faculty and students of Syracuse for complacency on the library layoffs until we have confirmation that that’s what happened.) Are the books being eliminated because the librarians were? (That is, if there’s no one to manage the collection, it must make it easier to ship it off-site.)


  8. Can I get sentimental here? I love the smell of the stacks. There’s a very powerful sense memory there, and the smell of rows upon rows of aging books (some aging gracefully, others less so) puts me in the mood to do Great Scholarly Things.

    Is that weird?


  9. There is no budget for books this year because the library director decided to use what little he received to preserve staff positions and subscriptions to electronic journal databases. I think he made the right choice.


  10. When I was in graduate school at BFU, I was constantly amazed at what I could find on the shelves at the largest open stacks library on the East Coast. The rudimentary computerized catalog mimicked what humanities scholars do: you could find a book, but you could also ask what was on either side of said book on the shelf. Some librarian understood how some scholars worked. But what was amazing for this historian was the ability to find a book from another century that hadn’t been checked out for, well, a century. For a paper on photography and western expeditions, I trawled in the Dewey Decimal stacks for a work on the Hayden expedition. Found the work, opened the cover, and discovered that the book had been signed by F. V. Hayden himself!

    What worries me about offsite storage is that (for historians in particular) seldom-used books and periodicals are the first to be carted away. (And I worked at one university whose library decided to dump Harper’s and Scribner’s and Atlantic Monthly–they were rescued by the History Department and resided outside my office door. My dissertation is indebted.) My state has a great university and public library system (though it has been undermined by budget cuts), but with offsite storage my students are challenged to complete assignments in a timely manner.

    I’ve been working on the New Deal and the Great Depression, and libraries were one of the few “growth industries” in that era–books delivered by women librarians on packhorses in Appalachia, bookmobiles, state taxes on stocks and bonds to fund libraries, the PWA construction of buildings, the WPA funds for rebinding books, for librarians, and the like. All the local library levies in the last election here passed, and that should say something.

    As for my last university’s library–well, it is a great library because the university also has a library school. But the new provost has been rumored to have said that he doesn’t understand why a library school is necessary. Then again, he and the university’s new president have offices on the library’s second floor, and they were just redone for a several million dollars. They’ve 11 more floors to take by eminent domain.


  11. Notorious–I’m with you. There is an enticing smell to the stacks. And Re: History Maven’s point about seldom-used books: I love checking out a book and finding uncut pages therein. I know that 100- or 150-year old books with uncut pages are example A for wasted library dollars, but as History Maven suggests, libraries serve another function besdies collecting information and making it accessible to users today. Over time, they also become de facto archives and rare book collections. This is worthy of public and institutional support. Deaccessioning books is like paying the gas bill with your endowment. It’s an avoidable exercise in auto-cannibalism.

    Knitting Clio’s tale of her library’s budget this year is probably representative. I agree that preserving staff this year is more important than adding to the book collection–but the state and/or institutional budget needs to make that a temporary solution, not a permanent one.


  12. The prospect of a bookless library is scary…but overblown. Faculty are right to question whose priorities are being served by opening a Starbucks where their research materials used to be, but the truth is that most libraries are building off-site storage because there are simply too many books to fit in the buildings constructed 50 or more years ago. It’s stupid when someone proposes off-site storage that is 500 miles away, but when it’s in some less-central-to-the-campus spot from which books can be delivered to you in a day (at my U., into my mailbox no less!) it seems unfair to claim you are really being inconvenienced.

    Some point out that shelf browsing is a way to rediscover the value of forgotten materials, but when (as at my library) books were shelved in several different classification schemes, and often lost *within* the building, it wasn’t really all that productive.

    I served as chair of my university’s library watchdog committee, and I heard a lot of faculty hysteria over the plan to move books to offsite storage. You know what the real threat to historians’ book culture is? Not off-site storage, but expensive journals, controlled by for-profit corporations and absolutely vital to our scientific and medical colleagues’ research. Their costs are insidiously eating into library budgets, meaning that they can’t afford to buy the books you and I write (and want to read) anymore. It’s hard to convince those colleagues, and even our social-scientists, that there is something important to our discipline that mandates communicating in a format of 200 pages or so.


  13. It’s always implied that fiscal/budgetary and physical space constraints are fixed and unavoidable, but they’re only fixed for “stakeholders” that allow them to be fixed. Once Penn State joined the Big Ten there was no way on earth why Syracuse needed a bubble-dome stadium that you could see with the naked eye from Mars; but they built one anyway. Ohio State already had a horseshoe stadium that could fit the population of my nearby college town in five times over, but they tore up the campus for three years to “close the ‘Shoe” and add more capacity for seven dates a year. While they were at it, they also closed their overstuffed but innovative library, presumably to add more coffeehouse and beanbag amenities, while sending their scholars across the river to temporary facilities to seek out knowledge. Why not send the athletic programs to “remote storage” by paying for all interested stakeholders to have top of the line accounts in various fantasy leagues and “all you can watch ESPN” subscriptions? This could probably be done at a real discount to the amortized bond costs of athletic facility bricks and mortar, and the savings could be used to build higher on the library front.

    The same arguments that are now used about why we “just can’t” expand today’s libraries could have been used a generation ago to justify standing pat with the cute but relicky little “old libraries” on campuses that have now often been repurposed to other functions. The critical importance of physical access to knowledge for at least some kinds of humanistic inquiry can’t just be dismissed. That is, there are surely practices in most disciplines that will not be much harmed by going all remote. But other methodologies just as surely will be, and it’s hard to see why the special interest discipline of library science, in alliance with the comprtollers, should be allowed to be the ajudicator here.


  14. The idea that one can simply order a book from off-site storage presumes that one can identify the book one needs using a catalog or other finding aid. Trouble is, finding aids reflect the assumptions of the era in which they are created and the abilities of the person creating them. Anyone working in women’s history knows that indexes created before about 1975 never accurately reflect content related to women. (More recent indexes are only somewhat more reliable.)

    Years ago, I met a historian who worked on compiling “Sources in Women’s History,” the catalog of archival collections in the U.S. published in the late 1970s (we used to call it just “Hinding,” after the main editor). The editors had sent out a questionnaire to hundreds of archivists. Many, many came back claiming that this or that archives held NO collections relating to women. The historian telling me this story related how she literally drove around the country, visiting these archives and uncovering family paper collections with scores of letters by women, and (her favorite example) college archives at coeducational institutions with hundreds of files on women’s organizations. How could colleges with women students imagine their archives did not document women?, wondered my colleague.

    I don’t want finding aids standing between me and the books. To perform my research effectively, I need to go into the stacks and rifle through the books myself. I need to flip through shelves of books at a time to work efficiently. I refuse to relinquish my chance to do this so that the library can replace books with computer terminals where students check out facebook (or watch pr0n, apparently).

    Yes, special collections rooms do not open their stacks, but this is by admission a special situation, intended to protect the rare and fragile.

    The only way off-site storage could serve historians is if we each got a spacious private office in the library with lots of shelf space, and the books were delivered to us by the hundreds. But that wouldn’t save much space, now would it?


  15. I have a semi-insider’s perspective on librarianship since my husband’s worked in academic libraries for about five years. We’ve watched staffing levels get cut to the bone (his hours are now part-time at a local college instead of full-time at the U) and that has an impact.

    Who’s there to scan those chapters you want from the books on ILL or the article from the journal your U doesn’t have? I’m seeing a situation where supporting those requirements as well as serving our own students is harder and harder to manage. And with our library acquisition budget cut to 1/3 its former levels, who thinks it will be restored anytime soon?

    When you nickel and dime your library, you nickel and dime humanities research which already is thought to be cost-free because we don’t require labs or investigators or the like. But if no one has the books, and no one keeps journals available (whether through leaving the private-sector model or what-have-you), if no one keeps the material available, if no one teaches the students how to use the materials we have, how can we be surprised that libraries turn into Starbucks and study rooms?


  16. My campus is facing a similar downsizing issue (to make space for an office of on-line instruction among other things). The issue was not moving books off campus but deaccessioning 60,000+ volumes.

    In two weeks, we collected over 122 signatures on a petition…out of a faculty of just over 160.

    Of course, the humanities faculty signed on en masse, but faculty from the sciences and professional programs were vocal advocates of “browsing the stacks” as well.

    Electronic books open many doors but I worry that with future budget cuts, we may not hold the subscription rights to books we once had in our own stacks. We are already facing this problem with journal access. At a mid-level state university like mine, only a few students will do the legwork to even identify sources, let alone request them on ILL. If we don’t have the resource the students won’t find it. Viva browsing!


  17. This reminds me of a lot of the discussions and debates that I participated in a few years ago when I was working on an LIS (Library & Information Science) degree. That was 3-4 years ago, but these were already serious issues then. Further developments in technology use and declining funds in a bad economy have just made them more and more urgent.

    The most basic problem seems to be that actually being able to browse through the stacks of books is definitely an important part of research for many scholars, but because this benefit is so difficult to quantify, it is essentially invisible to administrators. It’s very difficult to justify expenditure for benefits that can’t be measured or quantified, especially in a time of tight budgets.

    It’s also a good point that researchers in different fields gather information differently, and how browsing and serendipitous discovery may be more important to historians than to researchers in most other fields.


  18. “What is a library without books?”

    The place where you can get help from the librarians. (Thanks everyone who raised the issue of library staff reductions.)

    I don’t have much to add to what others have said, except for the cynical observation that “it will hurt faculty research” doesn’t seem likely to be persuasive to administrators in the increasingly adjunctified world of higher education.


  19. If someone is an academic administrator and they can’t “quantify” the value of their profs prowling the stacks in search of knowledge, maybe they should go look for a job somewhere where they need administrators. Which is definitely not around universities. Of course, to be fair, raise your hand if you’ve recently seen someone in your field with more than two books out roaming around the open stacks of a big uni research library. I haven’t at BFU, or hunched over laptops at the reading tables at any of the nearby major manuscript collections either, for that matter. It’s all the dissertators and early phase post-docs. I’ve often wondered whether the bigfeet have special reading rooms, or is it just that they have RAs? So maybe the beancounters are onto something after all?

    Re Mark K’s “cynical observation”: check the piece in the Times today about CUNY’s big drive into science research. And not mere “curiosity-driven” science, they point out–with a gratuitous sneer at my favorite faculty of the imagination. Rather mission-driven. Like, we’re going to find a molecule that binds to damaged cartilage in the knee, to speed the return of running backs from the disabled list. Science like that there.


  20. Pingback: Excellence without Money!, part III: Knowledge without Books! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  21. Pingback: What is a library without books? A true story in two acts. « Libraries with/out Walls

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