Thursday, April 21, 2011

A library without books

The University of Denver's Penrose library is undergoing a dramatic change starting this summer. The library promises all sorts of wonderful new features -- lots of public space, more study areas for students, lecture and discussion rooms, a café with a patio, among other things. But how will they achieve this without expanding the building? By removing the books.

The library is betting on a vision of the future. It figures that print is dead or dying, that the vast majority of books just sit in the stacks for decades untouched, and that students and faculty are increasingly relying upon electronic texts. So they're switching to an almost completely digitized library. I'm honestly not sure of all the details here. If I want to get an obscure but brilliant text on California legislative parties in the mid-20th century, will I obtain a hardcopy from an off-site facility, or will they have scanned the text to make it available to me as an e-book?

Frankly, I can cope either way. I have fond memories of wandering library stacks and browsing books that just happened to be located near the book I was seeking. In the summer of 1990, I had a stack pass to the Library of Congress, which was a rare honor. I had a research job there reading letters from African-American soldiers to President Roosevelt written during World War II -- physically touching the yellowed letters was an important part of my development as a scholar. But I don't really research that way any more, and I find myself increasingly doing my reading on an iPad. The rise of on-line data collection has been a real boon to me, as well, as I'm old enough to remember actually walking to the FEC to photocopy campaign finance data, which was a true pain.

I recognize, however, that not everyone researches like I do. I've spoken with some folks in the humanities who aren't thrilled with the transformation of the library. Examining old maps or paintings or hand-written texts is not quite the same in electronic format, particularly when your work involves literally staring at something for hours looking for patterns or connections to other works.

I also find myself wondering whether students will actually utilize all this new public space. If we don't need physical books, do we need meeting rooms and quiet study spaces? Or are chat rooms enough? I don't really like being an e-hermit, but these students are at least 20 years younger than I am. How will they study in the years to come?

The university is gambling quite a bit -- $32 million, plus the school's reputation -- on one particular vision of the future. Maybe it's the right one. Or maybe we'll finally develop a national brand identity, only as the school with the bookless library.


marc said...

A shelf organized by topic, viewable by standing in front of it, still trumps the search engine for discovering useful stuff you didn't know existed. That could and probably will change. But if it doesn't change soon, then I wonder if a digital library won't really function more like an archive, and we'll have to adjust how we work and think accordingly.

Seth Masket said...

I get the impression that's how a lot of students are thinking already. But I actually haven't seen much hard evidence on this either way.

t said...

What happened to the Penrose library completed in 1973? Torn down?
'73 alum terese m terry