Even in college libraries (a word from the Latin word for book, liber), books are becoming an endangered species. Time magazine recently reported that the engineering libraries at Kansas State University, Stanford and the University of Texas are virtually, if not completely, book-free. Drexel University has a new Library Learning Terrace, a recently opened 3,000 square foot residence hall-based space that has no books to speak of but rows of computer terminals granting access to the Philadelphia school’s 170 million electronic journal articles, database entries and other e-items.
At my own small Jesuit college in Jersey City, the library has had no choice but to winnow down its books due to lack of space, not to mention the increasingly daunting task of taking care of all those dust-collecting volumes. Books do mold and a leak in the library’s roof and occasional break-downs in the air-conditioning system do not help. Furthermore, many of the books in our college library were simply not the sort of thing 21st-century students majoring in Criminal Justice, Accounting, Biochemistry and Nursing would find useful. Holdings from the libraries of now-closed Jesuit seminaries (like the one formerly in Shrub Oak, New York) found their way to us, but we really didn’t have too many readers for tomes on theology, journals about linguistics and The New Criterion. Faculty were asked to choose journals, duplicates of books are still on sale for $1 and a few volumes were discovered in boxes beside trash bins by some of my students, who hurried to rescue them.
But the reality is that most students — and many faculty, myself included — read journal articles from online databases and, more and more, pull up e-books on laptops, iPads and smartphones (I have a preference for the last item as I always have it with me). Electronic databases do not come cheap — colleges and universities have to pay for yearly subscriptions — and my school (and many others) has had to make a budgetary choice between books and databases .
It is lovely to curl up with a book in a comfortable chair or in a well-lighted library with that hush and the feeling of being surrounded by the knowledge of all those books; I was lucky to attend institutions with beautiful libraries. Indeed, as Time magazine points out, what many — including architects — are lamenting is the “inevitable trend toward booklessness” and its affect on designing spaces like libraries. On GOOD magazine, Liz Dwyer recalls fond moments in the college library:
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.
In the New York Times, writer James Gleick describes the “exhilaration” of handling not simply a real, physical book (when did you last do that?) but an original manuscript like the first, oldest notebook of Isaac Newton, in the Reading Room of the Morgan Library in New York. Gleick notes the plans of a number of European libraries to digitize their collections and thereby make them accessible to anyone with an Internet connection:
Last month the British Library announced a project with Google to digitize 40 million pages of books, pamphlets and periodicals dating to the French Revolution. The European Digital Library, Europeana.eu, well surpassed its initial goal of 10 million “objects” last year, including a Bulgarian parchment manuscript from 1221 and the Rok runestone from Sweden, circa 800, which will save you trips to, respectively, the St. Cyril and St. Methodius National Library in Sofia and a church in Ostergotland.
Reporting to the European Union in Brussels, the Comité des Sages (sounds better than “Reflection Group”) urged in January that essentially everything — all the out-of-copyright cultural heritage of all the member states — should be digitized and made freely available online. It put the cost at approximately $140 billion and called this vision “The New Renaissance.”
With such holdings available on the web, manuscripts that scholars used to have to travel far to see are simply available to all, including my students; including you and me. Accordingly, Gleick writes that we need to get over and beyond our “sentimentalism, and even fetishization” with what’s becoming biblo-nostalgia, a professed devotion to books as physical objects because of “the grain of paper and the scent of glue.” Far better that far more people can access books, manuscripts, articles and so much more they might ever have been able to.
I am unable to travel much — my husband and I are our autistic teenage son‘s only caretakers; I have been able to travel some in the past three years but each trip set off weeks if not months in anxiety in my son, to the extent that he refused to wear anything but one shirt, one pair of pants and one pair of socks until fairly recently . Now I can’t say “I’ll never get to see that” ancient manuscript or book — sure, there is nothing like going to see the real thing, but the majority of us can now see the contents of libraries we would never, ever have had access too.
Perhaps Callimachus would have been envious.
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Photo of the card catalogues in Yale University's Sterling Library by ragesoss