Are College Libraries About to Become Bookless?

Posted by Liz Dwyer

The number of colleges using electronic textbooks available to students is on the rise. But what about the rest of the books on campus—the millions of volumes stored in the library? It turns out the digital text revolution is beginning to turn college libraries into places that no longer stock physical books.

As Time reports, the engineering libraries at Kansas State University, Stanford and the University of Texas are almost completely book-free. And now at Drexel University in Philadelphia, the new Library Learning Terrace, a 3,000 square foot residence hall-based space that opened in June, there are no books at all.

According to Danuta Nitecki, the dean of libraries at Drexel, the terrace is book-free since the role of libraries is changing. "We don't just house books, we house learning," she says. That means defining "a new kind of library environment," one that's decentralized across the campus. Indeed, the space is more like a study lounge. There are cozy chairs, movable tables for study groups meetings and gigantic whiteboards. And, since Drexel already has 170 million electronic books, journals or other academic material in their collection, all students need to do to access them is get online. If they don't know exactly what research source they should be looking for, librarians will be staffing the space, bringing their expertise to the students.

The space only fits 75 students, so its not like the library at Drexel is going to completely disappear this year, but this does signal the direction college libraries as a whole are probably heading. It's expensive for universities to house and maintain ever-growing hardback book collections, and a generation raised with the internet—with information at their fingertips—is going to increasingly want to access library collections online.

On one hand, I can see plenty of benefits to moving college library collections completely online. If, for example, you're a student working on a research paper, you never have to worry about the book you need being checked out by one of your peers since you can access a digital copy at any time. And if you're a procrastinator working on that paper at 2 a.m. the night before it's due and you discover you need a new source, you'd be able to check out the campus library collection even if the physical building is closed.

But, I also fondly remember the time I spent in the library when I was in college. Sure, it was incredibly frustrating to find out that someone else had just checked out the exact book I wanted. However, since the books were organized by subject, just by examining adjacent titles on the shelf, I'd often discover another source that I hadn't previously known existed, or hadn't thought about using. And, while walking through the stacks, I'd also often come across a title or subject that seemed intriguing, so I'd check the book out and read up on something new.

Of course, enabling that kind of discovery is easily addressed if campus libraries set up their search engines like Netflix or Amazon so that they recommend other titles to students. Some sort of "people who checked out this book also checked out..." thing would work well. In whatever form it takes, with the way technology is developing, students going to a central library to access hardback books is probably going to become a thing of the past within the next decade.

photo  (cc) via Flickr user Joe Crawford (artlung)