Inside Higher Ed: A Truly Bookless Library

September 21, 2010

The difference between the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Applied Engineering and Technology Library and other science-focused libraries is not that its on-site collection is also available electronically. It is that its on-site collection is only available electronically.

The idea of a library with no bound books has been a recurring theme in conversations about the future of academe for a long time, and it has become common practice for academic libraries to store rarely used volumes in off-campus facilities. But there are few, if any, examples of libraries that actually have zero bound books in them.

Some libraries, such as the main one at the University of California at Merced, and the engineering library at Stanford University, have drastically reduced the number of print volumes they keep in the actual library building, choosing to focus on beefing up their electronic resources. In fact, some overenthusiastic headline writers at one point dubbed Stanford’s library “bookless”. But that is “a vision statement, not a point of fact”, says Andrew Herkovic, the director of communications for Stanford’s libraries.

San Antonio says it now has the first actual bookless library. Students who stretch out in the library’s ample study spaces – which dominate the floor plan of the new building – and log on to its resource network using their laptops or the library’s 10 public computers will be able to access 425,000 ebooks and 18,000 electronic journal articles. Librarians will have offices there and will be available for consultations.

Students used to get their engineering and technology books from a collection at the campus’ main library. That collection is still there, and books from it are available on request. But at the new library dedicated to that speciality, the only dead trees are in the beams and furniture.

The fact that San Antonio has actually built a literal version of what many in the industry hold up as symbol of the inevitability of the electronic as the prevailing medium in academe may be commendable, but it is not “earth-moving”, says Roger Schonfeld, the managing director of Ithaka S+R, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes innovation in libraries and elsewhere. Many libraries, especially science and engineering ones, have started moving their print volumes out of buildings and into remote storage.

Lisa Hinchliffe, president of the Association of College and Research Libraries, says that her institution, the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and several others have embedded librarians in various department buildings. Their offices in those buildings, it could be argued, constitute bookless libraries inasmuch as they are places where students and professors go to learn about how to use campus collections that can be accessed from anywhere.

More interesting than the fact that San Antonio’s newest library has no printed books in it is the fact that more and more libraries are devoting less space to printed books, and are thus reimagining the physical space of the library, Hinchliffe says. Whether the building houses half of its former print collection or none of it, the evolution of the library as a physical hub is something nearly every library is dealing with.

As a shared space for discovery, socialising and studying, the library is still very much relevant and in demand, says Krisellen Maloney, dean of libraries at San Antonio. That is why the university invested in a new library space instead of just putting librarians in offices around campus, Maloney says. “You study and work in the library,” she says. “That’s how libraries have always been. When people come to the library with books, they’re not necessarily using the books. They’re also there for the services – to consult, get instruction, find content, and use the content.”

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