California’s San Francisco State University is opening a newly-renovated library that will house only a quarter of the million or so books of its collection. Only books in “high-demand,” recently published titles and books recommended by the university’s departments will actually be on shelves in the library; the rest will be housed in five three-story high units. They can be retrieved in five to ten minutes via a robotic arm that is activated by an electronic prompt.
Deborah Masters, the university librarian, described the old library as a “rabbits’ warren” in the New York Times; the new structure has been updated to include open space as well as multimedia stations, group study areas and a café. Such renovations indeed recognize that libraries, or at least those on college and university campuses, are seen and used as places for students and others to gather and socialize. With more resources such as scholarly articles from academic journals and even books now available on the internet — and with a student population more used to accessing information via computers rather than by paging through books and hefty tomes of bound journals — devoting more of the physical space to multimedia resources makes sense. The library of my own college became so strapped for space that, a few years ago, it launched a project to weed out its holdings, removing duplicate books and bound copies of academic journals that had gone unused for years.
The jury is out about what could be and is lost when a library no longer offers its patrons aisles of books to wander through. Faculty from San Francisco State University’s Creative Writing Department are mourning the loss of shelves. “There’s a trend now where books are being stored in big vats and they aren’t available for us to touch and see,” says novelist Peter Orner. He adds that “I wouldn’t be a writer if, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I didn’t wander the open stacks.”
The New York Times notes that more than a dozen universities, including five in California, have installed similar mechanized systems.
I truly love books. It really is not the same to curl up in a chair or the couch and activate the iPad, or balance your laptop on your knees. Books don’t need recharging and “navigating” from page to page remains cumbersome. On the other hand, I just as truly appreciate being able to view a library’s catalogue from my home computer and to access books and articles in electronic form a few minutes after I think I’d like to read them. On a very personal note, because the demands of caring for our teenage autistic son mean that I have to be home a great deal and simply do not have the time to stroll around library stacks, being able to access so much from my computer has meant that I can actually continue with my own research.
The very word “library” comes from the Latin word for book, liber. Certainly what constitutes a “book” is changing as more people use Kindles, iPads, their phones and computers to read “books.” Could libraries one day have no books at all or a scant few of the paper and page sort? Or are issues of access and convenience more important?