From Library Babel Fish, November 15, 2011.

Ten years ago, Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper published a nifty book about how and why people use paper in their workplaces. The Myth of the Paperless Office reported ethnographic observations of people struggling to do things with computers that they were used to doing on paper; sometimes there were good reasons why paper was so persistent. The title reminded us that the “paperless office” we were promised decades ago is a joke – on us. We use more paper than ever and manage to have disorderly desktops both literally and digitally. That’s a funny kind of progress.

Now we have the bookless library. What is it about the concept of a library without books that is so sensational? Is it because it’s so bold? So heretical? So man-bites-dog exotic?

The Cushing Academy got a lot of ink in 2009 when the Boston Globe quoted its headmaster as saying “when I look at books, I see an outdated technology.” He planned to replace them with Kindles. (This much-discussed article is now behind the Globe’s new paywall; if you’re curious, you can buy access to it for a little under five bucks.)

Here are some more recent examples:

Time magazine: Is a Bookless Library Still a Library? (on Drexel University’s new Learning Terrace)

Gainsville Sun: Library Without Books is on UF ‘Wish List’ (on planned renovation of historic Newell Hall)

IHE: A Truly Bookless Library (UT San Antonio’s Applied Engineering and Technology Library)

In the last case, Stanford’s engineering library had to relinquish the title for booklessness. Though it made headlines for losing the books before UT San Antonio, it cheated and actually kept some. Rather than being literally true, being bookless is “a vision statement,” according to a library official.

Every now and then, someone who doesn’t do research and hasn’t been following issues relating to intellectual property, digital rights management, or academic publishing (let alone scholar’s preferences) argues that we need to do something radical to get over our fetish for outdated technology, suggesting that we burn books or ban them. These visionaries assume that everything that matters is digital and free, so why bother keeping paper copies? Silly librarians. These guys should read that Globe article. Of course, they’ll have to pay.

In fact, going bookless is not particularly popular. Books are strongly and positively identified with libraries, and libraries that ditch them get into trouble with the communities they serve, even when they have good reasons for reducing the number of books sitting on shelves. But there’s no denying that academic libraries now spend far more of their budgets renting temporary access to knowledge controlled by a few big corporations than they do on buying and cataloging paper things. Renting is more convenient – just think how much effort you save by choosing one thing that costs $50,000 rather than choosing $50,000 worth of things that cost only $25.00 or $50.00 apiece. Renting requires less staff handling and those rented collections don’t take up space. Of course, when you can’t pay the rent, you have nothing to show for all that money you’ve been spending.Which is why you keep spending it.

University presses have gotten used to the idea of bookless libraries. They no longer publish with a library market in mind, now that the majority of the 500 or 800 copies of a new university press book are bought by individuals, with only 100 or 150 purchased by libraries.It seems to me a strange world when libraries are no longer a significant market for academic books.

Especially given that this is not a world in which books are fading away. In 2010, more books than ever in our history were published, over 3 million new books released in print format in the US alone, according to Bowker, the folks behind Books in Print. (This staggering number doesn’t include e-only books or books published without ISBNs.) Of these new books, only 316,000 or so were from traditional publishers, but that’s still a lot of new books, far more than were published ten years ago.

But academic libraries buy fewer and fewer books because the rent keeps going up. This rent, of course, is not for space – though that’s expensive, too. I’m talking about all that electronic stuff, the stuff that the would-be book burners and banners assume is free. When you know that a subscription you’ve been spending tens of thousands of dollars on will vanish if you fail to pay the rent, you trim where you can, and for the past thirty years, that’s been the book budget, which is more discretionary than those demanding subscriptions. No wonder university presses and other scholarly book publishers are banding together to license digital book collections by subscription. It seems the only way to guarantee your product will get into libraries is to charge a lot for something that disappears if you stop paying.

No matter how innovative the bookless library sounds, this isn’t a situation we planned. If the academic library of the future is bookless, it won’t be because of vision. It will be because of the lack of it.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.