Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

May 15, 2005

Libraries without Books?

Filed under: — Different River @ 3:21 pm

The New York Times reports that:

HOUSTON, May 13 – Students attending the University of Texas at Austin will find something missing from the undergraduate library this fall.


By mid-July, the university says, almost all of the library’s 90,000 volumes will be dispersed to other university collections to clear space for a 24-hour electronic information commons, a fast-spreading phenomenon that is transforming research and study on campuses around the country.

“In this information-seeking America, I can’t think of anyone who would elect to build a books-only library,” said Fred Heath, vice provost of the University of Texas Libraries in Austin.

No, but there is a big difference between a “books-only library” and a “no-books library.” I’m as big a fan of online information as you’ll find anywhere (especially online journal articles), but the fact is, unless and until they scan in and make available online every book ever published, there will still be a legitimate need for books in libraries, and therefore a real loss of information if you get rid of books.

And even if they do that, there is still some sort of loss. Sure, scanned books might have searchable text (like the scanned journals in the JSTOR collection, and that would be a gain, and you could retrieve any scanned book you want (without worrying if someone else has checked it out) which would also be a gain. But sometimes it’s just easier to flip the pages of a book and “see what’s there” if you don’t know what words to search on, and sometimes it’s nice to browse the stacks and see what other books are available on the same or related subjects, which you might not have thought to search for. (When I was an undergraduate, a professor told me they had once considered closing the stacks in the university library to undergraduates — they’d have staff retrieve whatever books you asked for, but not let undergrads browse the stacks. They rejected the idea in part because they thought the ability to browse the stacks was valuable from an educational and research point of view.)

But even so, we’re a very long way from having every old book scanned in, and they are already moving the books out.

I think this is part of a larger trend, which is the devaluation of any piece of information that was published more than a few years ago. This is not a good trend.

2 Responses to “Libraries without Books?”

  1. romy Says:

    i recommended to one of my students that she look up a few things on e-text, since all the library’s copies had already been checked out, and she stared at me like i had 3 heads. “do you think i want to go blind before i’m 25?” she asked me. “i don’t LIKE e-text. it’s not reading; it’s staring at a light-bulb for the equivalent of 220 pages.”

    this generation, smart it is.

  2. Different River Says:

    I sympathize, but let’s not make this into a religion. It’s one of the benefits of e-text that you can read it regardless of how many other people are reading it at the same time. If reading it on the screen is a rpoblem because it’s too bright, can she (a) turn down the brightness on her monitor, or (b) print it out?

    I don’t like reading journal articles on the screen — partly because I like to highlight and write marginal notes — but I like having them available online. Printing them out from an electronic version usually produces better paper copies than making a photocopy of a printed journal.

    However, not everything is available electronincally and until everything is (which may well be never), we need to keep the books available.

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