The Bookless Library

| November 6, 2011

Phones have gone cordless, the Internet has gone wireless.  Offices have gone paperless. Why shouldn’t libraries go bookless?

Over the last two decades, libraries have kept up with the digital shift, among other reasons, partly to remain up-to-date in their mission of organizing and providing access to information (OPACs should make relevant books easier to find), and partly because of a complementary shift to a user-centered service perspective (all the kids are on Facebook, so we should be too). Then there are budgetary issues, and issues of storage and preservation. Although digital-analog wars raged, digital has greatly won out, so much so that libraries across the world are now going bookless.

Before the bibliophiles get too worked up about this, it’s necessary to point out that bookless libraries are not doing away with books, but simply with the printed medium in which they’ve traditionally been presented. And they’ll be putting (most of) those physical print copies into off-site storage, where they will be safe and cozy in their climate-controlled environments. It’s not that books are dying, it’s that there is no longer enough space on the shelf to put them all.

The discussion of bookless libraries bubbled up last summer when Stanford University announced that it would make its Engineering Library “bookless.” The story was covered by The New Yorker and NPR. This past summer, Time Magazine announced the arrival of the bookless library at campuses across the country, and just this month The New York Times ran an article called “The Bibliotech – Library of the Future, Now,” highlighting the University of Chicago’s new Mansueto Library.

The move to bookless libraries is not meant to take resources away from students, but rather to better support them. The room once taken up by shelves of bound volumes is now being changed into study and collaboration spaces where students can directly access the library’s virtual resources.  Because of the open space that this will create, it will be easier for some institutions, like the University of Florida, to keep their library open twenty-four hours. In the case of Chicago’s Mansueto Library, students can still request a print copies of books should they desire, and an automated robotic crane will fetch it for them.  Pretty neat.

As a library science student, I would hope that this shift to fewer on-site books and greater accessibility to e-resources will be accompanied by plenty of information literacy workshops and reference services that cultivate a close connection between librarians and library users. While e-resources might ostensibly be available, access will truly depend on patron’s awareness of and ability to use what is available to them.

Yet the impression of a library as a complex, incomprehensible system to which only a master librarian holds the key is much older than the digital age. The issue of a library’s true accessibility will continue into the age of bookless libraries and beyond it. Just as paperless offices are still offices with memos and reports, the bookless library is in its essence not a new type of library at all, but simply one that has (partly) changed its medium.