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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Bookless libraries?

As someone whose home is being overrun with books, I read this article on the NRP website with interest: Stanford Ushers In The Age Of Bookless Libraries.

A “bookless library” seems like an oxymoron. But in this case, it makes a lot of sense. The library is an engineering library and according to the article, information in that field becomes obsolete quickly, as evidenced by this excerpt:
The new library is set to open in August with 10,000 engineering books on the shelves — a decrease of more than 85 percent from the old library. Stanford library director Michael Keller says the librarians determined which books to keep on the shelf by looking at how frequently a book was checked out. They found that the vast majority of the collection hadn’t been taken off the shelf in five years.
Keller expects that, eventually, there won’t be any books on the shelves at all.
“As the world turns more and more, the items that appeared in physical form in previous decades and centuries are appearing in digital form,” he says.
Young man sitting in chair resting feet on second chair using laptop
It makes sense to digitize such a library as much as possible as part of the Google Books Library Project given that text books cannot keep up.

I have a set of encyclopedias in my basement that haven’t been used in 30 years. They are from the late 1940s. They were great at the time, and even for school reports when I was a kid since they were all I had, but as information changes, we need to have access to it.

But what does this mean for mainstream libraries?

Seems that the writing is on the wall. The article goes on to say, “According to a survey by the Association of Research Libraries, American libraries are spending more of their money on electronic resources and less on books.” But, as I said in a post back in January:

What about the feel and smell of books?
I’m starting to believe both are over rated.
A couple of years ago, I edited a novel for a publishing company. They sent it to me in a .pdf file and I printed it – all 500 or so pages. Five pages into the novel I was completely engrossed in the story. I didn’t miss out on the experience. It was a great book even though it wasn’t bound and printed.
Whenever I buy a book, I look through the stack of that particular title for the one in the best physical condition – no blemishes on the book cover, no visible dent marks, no bent pages, no pages with lighter printing than other pages, etc. The truth is, nearly ever book I’ve ever purchased has a blemish somewhere. I just don’t see it right away. Sometimes the binding breaks, sometimes the paper doesn’t feel right, sometimes the book doesn’t even smell like a book.
We like the notion of feel and smell, but in reality, neither offer a pure experience. In a sense, I’ve treated bound books like I do with a lot of things in life I over romanticize. Books are about information and/or entertainment. Information and entertainment happen as a result of the words in the book, not the packaging.
Since writing these words, I have purchased a Kindle. I’ve read two books on it and I have purchased and downloaded several more. It feels a lot like a book. I take it to bed with me at night and it’s just as easy to read, if not moreso, than a book book.

But the other day, I saw book in a bargain bin that caught my eye and I bought it. I don’t expect to ever stop buying book books for various reasons such as this.

In a way, this transition period feels like the 8-track/LP/cassette/CD transition that occurred when I was a kid. I’d just begin to accumulate music in one format and the next one would come along, which would require me to buy a machine that would play music in multiple formats.

You make the transition and deal with multiple formats because that is the age in which we live.


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