Libraries, please keep your books

Consider this odd juxtaposition: The literary world is celebrating over talk show host Oprah Winfrey's announcement that her wildly popular book club will again include contemporary authors.

Meanwhile, as college students headed back to the University of Texas this fall, they found the main undergraduate library there missing a key ingredient: books.

When no less formidable a celebrity than Oprah herself reinforces the notion that reading is a valid and valued activity, I can't help but wonder why colleges and universities would want to send the alternative message by divesting themselves of, you know, actual "books."

In a May New York Times article about the trend in higher education to build "digital learning laboratories," Geneva Henry of Rice University's digital library initiative in Houston, Texas said, "The library is not so much a space where books are held as where ideas are shared. It's having a conversation rather than homing in on the book."

This was not the first time I had read of libraries being stripped of books. The same decision has been made at other esteemed universities. Given the caliber of these institutions of higher learning, I told myself that my devotion to bound volumes might be merely old-fashioned.

Then Alberto Manguel, the author of "A History of Reading," came to Rhodes College as scholar-in-residence. His latest title might make some people's eyes glaze over. But don't shortchange yourself - listening to Mr. Manguel and his ideas could just clarify our collective consciousness about the importance of reading.

In an address called "How Pinocchio Learned to Read," Manguel told us, "There are characters in books that become our own because they speak to us as intimately as if they'd been imagined for us, and define us as forcefully as the first time we meet a great teacher or the first time we fall in love."

When has anyone had such an experience while mining data from the World Wide Web?

This, I believe, is the crux of the difference between the two paths of learning. There is no question that the online researcher can access material never available inside one set of walls or under one roof. In fact, the Internet lays at a scholar's feet resources from all over the globe. Yet by its very nature the online world is geared to deliver quick facts. Because eyes quickly tire of gazing at a computer screen, serious contemplation is discouraged.

A book, on the other hand, conjures up images of comfort - sitting before a fire, perhaps with a cup of cocoa, maybe sprawled in a porch glider or propped up in bed. Such environments encourage frequent pauses to reread an especially engaging line or contemplate what one has just encountered.

I am far from technophobic. In fact, as chief information officer of Rhodes College I am investing heavily in digital asset management, and we are determined to be part of the digital publishing world. This fall, we opened a new library replete with computers and computer laboratories, collaborative learning spaces, laptops for checkout, a teaching/ learning center to help faculty adapt to new teaching technologies, a multimedia center and a 24-hour cybercafe that sells Starbucks products. The 136,000-square-foot facility is wireless throughout.

It also has books.

Indeed, we have allowed space to double our collection of bound volumes and to stay current with the electronic media as technology advances. We believe that serious students must have access to both books and the wide world of online resources.

I am happy to see that other colleges are eschewing the "digital only" approach to libraries, too. A 2003 Chronicle of Higher Education headline reported a new study finding that "Library Construction Focuses More on Books than on Technology," and that same publication just did a special section on libraries that seems to imply that computers cannot entirely replace books.

And yet, as huge university libraries push aside their books, they are sending a terrible message to their students. In Manguel's words, "It is relatively easy to be superficially literate, to follow a sitcom, to understand an advertising joke, to read a political message, to chat online. But to go further and deeper ... we need to learn to read in other ways, differently, in order to learn to think."

In very different ways, Alberto Manguel and Oprah Winfrey are doing their best to combat "superficial literacy." Now it's up to college and university leaders to grab the torch.

Robert Johnson is vice president for information services at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.

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