As colleges ditch books, the future of the campus library is changing

As major universities like UC Berkeley abandon traditional book collections, the role of campus libraries is starting to look a little different from the good old days of an offline era.

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
In this October 2012 file photo, students study in a library on the campus of California State University, Long Beach in Long Beach, Calif.

On college campuses across the United States, libraries are getting makeovers. And for many, that means moving away from physical books – the mainstay of libraries for thousands of years – in favor of other functions that college administrators say better fit the needs of the 21st-century student.

One of the latest examples of this trend is the University of California, Berkeley's Moffitt Library, which was recently remodeled to include wide-open meeting spaces for studying, a "nap pod" that students can use to take a break from the stressful college day, and glass walls designed to be written on for group projects.

In order to make room for the revamped space, the library removed 135,000 books that once resided there, sparking an increasingly common debate about the role of academic and public libraries in the age of the Internet, leading some to question whether libraries are necessary at all. But according to David Vrooman, information literacy librarian at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, libraries have been around a long time, and can remain relevant if they continue to adapt with the times.

"The skill to discern what is good information from bad in the online ecosystem can, and does at times, have high stakes," says Mr. Vrooman. Knowing how to both find and evaluate information has become a crucial component to society. Many college and university libraries, as well as local libraries, make efforts to teach these information literacy skills."

That's not something one can reliably learn online. And libraries also have important functions other than simply being a repository of books – they are used as community gathering places, as free internet providers for those who can't afford access, and as safehouses for knowledge that isn't vulnerable to technical glitches or tampering. But many students no longer see traditional campus libraries as the necessities they once were.

"I've never actually needed to use a physical book," Ted Xiao, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science at UC Berkeley, told the Los Angeles Times. "I've never checked one out. I can't honestly say I even know how."

Mr. Xiao's position is an increasingly familiar one for many college students. Why bother visiting a library when everything you need to use for assignments is available – and often more easily searchable – on the internet? And while Wikipedia and other common online sources might be less reliable than what one would find in a library, many colleges and universities give students free access to electronic journal articles and other online resources published with the same academic rigor as any physical document on a university campus.

But others warn that the jump to digital neglects certain resources that simply are not found on the web. One such critic is Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, who notes that many primary sources can still only be found in a physical, non-electronic format.

"As the author of some 30 books on cinema history, I can readily attest that most of the deep research materials in this area, and in other related humanities areas, have never made the jump to digital format," Dr. Dixon tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. "The more superficial and recent articles are readily available, but once you get into the history of the medium, in the early part of the 20th century, you're working with microfilm, or even more likely, actual print materials."

Ignoring these older physical media, Dixon argues, is "erasing the past," until every scrap of information is online. And even then, there are other potential problems. The removal of 60 percent of the physical collection at the science library of the University of California, Santa Cruz, for instance, caused an uproar after it was reported that many of the books removed had been destroyed. A campus spokesman said that nothing had been lost from the scholarly record, since duplicates were retained in other libraries or available online. Given the short timeframe and seeming lack of consultation of the faculty, however, many critics expressed doubts that this was actually the case.

"Only by trundling through the archives in detail – a process that would probably take a staff of people a number of years – could one be sure that nothing not digitized was being eliminated," says Dixon. "Also, in a number of cases, when materials are scanned, a very bad job is done of it, and the scan quality is so poor as to make the document almost unreadable."

Still, digital isn't going anywhere, and there are certainly many advantages to browsing electronically over traditional research methods. And in order to survive in the digital world, librarians will have to be flexible, says Vrooman.

"Libraries have to seriously consider at an individual level whether they need to give up physical space for books for other reasons," he adds. "They should not necessarily say no."

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