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'Bookless libraries' – has it really come to this?

A growing number of public and college libraries are deciding to remove paper-and-ink books from their shelves.

By Husna Haq / July 17, 2012

The move toward libraries stocked with digital holdings rather than paper-and-ink books has been variously labeled “a wave of the future,” “a myth,” and “a literary apocalypse.”

Lori Ann Cook-Neisler/The Pantagraph/AP

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The paperless office, the currency-devoid bank, the jobless recovery. The latest in a string of euphemistically-named contradictions? The bookless library.

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It began with the academic libraries. Kansas State University’s engineering school went bookless 12 years ago. The University of Texas at San Antonio ditched print for e-books and e-journals in 2010. Stanford University’s engineering school pruned 85 percent of its books last year. Drexel University opened a new library just last month with nary a bound volume – just rows and rows of computers. And Cornell recently announced a similar initiative.

For better or worse, the trend is now spreading to public libraries. Facing a budget crunch, the Balboa Branch library in Newport Beach, California, is mulling a plan to strip its original library of most of if not all its 35,000 books – and from the sounds of it, a few librarians, too. If patrons wanted a book, they could approach a voice-activated kiosk, speak to an off-site librarian to order books, then wait by the library’s fireplace for the books to be dropped off in an on-site locker.

Even the grand New York Public Library, that “beautiful Beaux-Arts structure of marble and stone occupying two blocks’ worth of Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan,” is planning for, if not a bookless future, a future with far fewer books. The NYPL’s upcoming transformation “anticipates the parallel and integrated worlds of electronic digital systems and traditional books” in a flexible space that can change with the times, architect Norman Foster told Time.

As ludicrous as a bookless library sounds, the development shouldn’t come as a surprise. Steadily growing sales of tablets, e-readers, and e-books make a case for a more digital-centric library, as do the reports by many academic and local libraries that a majority of patrons use libraries primarily for studying or accessing the Internet.  All that has led to the Association of Research Librariesfindings that American libraries are spending more of their money on electronic resources and less on books. Take that a few steps further and you have yourself a bookless library.

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