Book-less Libraries and Other Contemporary Realities

Here at Book Riot, Jeff recently posted about the Library Bridge at Oxford. I think that thing is pretty freaking cool. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, architecturally, and there are lots of interesting points to be made about the juxtaposition of ultramodern design on a campus so stylistically defined as Oxford. When the Book Riot Facebook feed ran with the story, there were some of those kinds of comments. But there were a lot more comments expressing surprise and, more often, consternation bordering on rage, about the lack of shelving.

My response:

head, meet desk

To review, here’s the library:

library table and stacks


And here’s the nostalgic notion we all hold in our heads about what libraries are all about:

public library space

Which is totally lovely.  And totally appropriate to a public library setting where people peruse and browse and handle physical books.  Public libraries are about discovery and community and serving a wide audience and a demographic that primarily prefers physical books. The information provided by public libraries is still largely best provided by physical objects.

The same, however, is not true of an academic library. While archives and library stacks are useful in some situations, the vast majority of library-related academic research relies on reviewing research published in journals, which is a task best done using online databases. Physical journals take up enormous amounts of space. Online journals have no footprint for a library and are faster and easier to access, cross-reference, and disseminate. My research has more in common with this

server farm

than with traditional library stacks.

This conversation made me think a lot about the response to new realities of reading and consuming knowledge, and how resistant people seem to be to them, especially on Facebook. I can’t figure out why that is. Does Facebook skew older? Does Facebook skew more conservative? Does Facebook skew luddite? Any one of those statements being true would be surprising to me, but I don’t really know.

When Book Riot posted to the Facebook page about To Kill a Mockingbird being unavailable in ebook, for example, the comment responses were bizarre to me. “There are no books on e-readers… only electrons.” “Go buy some REAL books.” “I hope there continue to be classics that are not on readers.” “Everything should be read on paper.” To me, this is akin to saying, “Your reading preference is wrong and you should be punished / limited accordingly.” So reading is about opening your mind — as long as you open it LIKE THIS.  Again, this is a perspective that seems more about personal preference and nostalgia than about the reality of the contemporary readerly world. (And, y’know, no one is actively taking away your paper books — so why so threatened?)

Academic libraries don’t need as many shelves as you might expect. Books on ereaders are still books. Things are changing, and it’s actually kind of cool the way the changes are opening up and broadening access, if we let them. If we could drop the knee-jerk reactions to change, we might actually be able to have rational conversations about what is good and bad about the changing ways of reading.

It’s all going to be okay.


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