Thoughts on The Bookless Library

Time magazine posed a question worth thinking about: “Is a Bookless Library Still a Library?” This certainly gets into interesting existential questions about what makes a library a library — thinking about a library as simply a collection of books can be somewhat limiting, after all. It makes more sense to be thinking about not only what a library is, but what a library does.

In this case, the occasion for reflection is the opening of Drexel University’s new bookless Library Learning Terrace, which has led at least some people to wonder: “when books disappear, does a library lose its definition?”

This is somewhat of an overstatement — the books don’t truly disappear, but are moved from one medium (print) to another (digital). The role of libraries is changing, as the nature of their collections change. Some discussion (check out: Inside Higher Ed: “Bookless Libraries?”) rightfully centers on this shift from thinking of the libraries strictly in terms of a place, and more of a structure or system in which information is found:

“The history of libraries … has been marked by evolution: They were founded as places where materials were collected and stored. Then they shifted their focus toward connecting clients with resources.”

Of course, the “bookless” library is not without recent precedent. There’s Kansas State University’s Fiedler Engineering Library, which opened back in October 2000. There is also the University of Texas at San Antonio’s own bookless library here. While San Antonio makes a point of claiming its library as being the first, actual bookless university library, perhaps this is much ado about nothing (Inside Higher Ed: “A Truly Bookless Library”)?

“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’”

Not earth-moving, because in terms of ‘booklessness’, we’re really talking about a matter of degree. Libraries everywhere are of course all dealing with this very same issue — “reimagining the physical space of the library” — that is part and parcel of the shift from print to digital.

And perhaps what garnered the most popular attention thus far in terms of bookless libraries, was Stanford’s Engineering Library last summer. In actuality, Stanford’s move was to change over about seven-eighths of their physical books on the shelf into digital form.

A fair question to ask at this point is: what’s the big deal, anyways? I think it’s because we like our libraries. We have a sentimental attachment to the library as a place of shared learning. And when change happens, in any context, we seldom do get to see dramatic changes, because big changes are an accumulation of many small changes along the way. But the notion of a ‘bookless’ library is somewhat dramatic. Stanford shares some reflections on the clash between New and Old (Stanford University: “‘Bookless’ library at Stanford looks to the future”), which even the idea of a bookless library elicits:

“It makes a lot of people nervous, the idea of a bookless library … In fact, some people really don’t like that phrase. But it is very interesting; it’s gotten a lot of press because it creates a sense of tension between the old and the new.”

For a more measured response on booklessness, The New Yorker (“The Dawn of the Bookless Library”) has some reflections on what all of the fuss is about. Yes, perhaps the distinction is merely academic. Or, perhaps it isn’t: “it isn’t some sort of thought experiment (if a tree falls in a forest with no one to hear, will it still make a noise? If a library contains no books, is it still a library?) or Borgesian symbol.”

Some of these observations might seem obvious in retrospect, but you know, sometimes we need reminders about the obvious, too. While it makes for better (or at least more passioned) debate to think only in terms of either/or, this/that, there is something almost démodé about framing the debate simply as Old vs. New, Print vs. Digital —

“Books aren’t obsolete; they’re so ubiquitous that they can’t even fit into a traditional campus and, like mushrooms, branch underground to cover entire states. In that light, reactions to the “bookless” Stanford library seem to be missing the point. They’re more a sign of how Manichean gut-feelings about literature are these days — either the digital world is an insidious devil, reluctantly acquiesced to or assiduously avoided, or the Internet is about to usher in a renaissance of reading, and digitization is a kind of messiah shedding light and learning on the world. Everyone knows there’s a middle ground but, when the whiff of a word like “bookless” floats about, no one ever seems to be standing on it.”

And in other news, the Los Angeles Times reports on a proposed bookless library plan incorporating a “Netflix-like system” of book loans (Los Angeles Times: “Tomes’ time might be up at Newport Beach library”). The bookless library approach could make sense, but as the Times notes, not every library experiments works — in particularly mentioning the Long Beach Library and Baltimore County library plans of years past: “The question is whether people are ready for bookless branches.”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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