Dead Libraries

Academic libraries are the walking dead. I just got booted out of ours at six, and it won’t be open tomorrow. They close early on Saturdays, too. Our library seems closed, of course, whenever I seem to need it. They even seem to turn off their servers many nights, for reasons that are entirely beyond me.

This is in contrast to my undergraduate days, when the library was often open 24 hours. You could (and I and others did) count on the library as a place of last resort if you couldn’t find a place to stay. And when, at 3 am, you needed to find a book, you could find your way to the brightly lit building on campus, trudge in wearing your sweats, and become enlightened.

I used to get a little thrill when I could find an article online. Now I get dejected when I can’t.

Students cannot find things in the library. Even when they go through the mandatory classes, they still draw almost all of their sources from the Web. I used to have a problem with this, but recently I don’t. (I do have a problem with their ability to identify good sources, but that’s another animal that is increasingly divorced from the physical library.)

Libraries cost too much. While the rest of the university’s funding is getting cut, libraries continue to require more funding to collect less. Moreover, space remains one of the dearest resources on a university campus and open stacks take up gobs of space.

In the long run, libraries are dust. I know that seems far-fetched, especially as Alexandria is being rebuilt. I also know that the death of the book has been greatly exaggerated. But I see little chance of their survival–at least in current form.

In the medium term, what replaces the library?

a) Print on demand. We are one of the minority (I believe) large state universities that still offer free, unlimited, printing. This mostly occurs within the libraries. The vast majority of people who are “going to the library” are headed there to print something. Often, these are articles put on electronic reserve for them. The step from this to high-speed printing and binding services that also provide books, is for now one that is only hindered by the publishers’ ability to maintain the current system at a profit.

b) Kozmo libraries. The model of closed stacks is hardly new. What happens when you can deliver books within minutes or hours to a patron. If a book is in the closed stacks, it is retrieved by a robotic system (much like a tape robot) and delivered to the patron read to be read and returned or already-checked-out. If it does not happen to be in the local collection, it is loaned from a partner library and automatically put on a truck for next-day delivery. Those who do not need the book immediately place the order online and have it delivered to their office door or mailbox later that day. Sound expensive? It is; but far less expensive than other solutions. Moreover, it builds upon existing delivery networks.

Of course, closing the stacks means that it is more difficult to browse the shelf; but as Amazon has recently shown us, there are alternatives.

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