Like a lot of librarians I was interested to read that the Cushing Academy in Massachusetts had decided to discard all their books and move to a digital future. Instead of a library full of books they plan to spend their money building a learning centre with flat screen TVs and datapoints, and in place of the reference desk they are going to build a cafe.
What is was really interesting about this news item is that it generated so much debate as well as so many comments in the media. Cushing Academy even got a mention on CNN.com/technology. Why? Universities across the world have been busy for some time building learning centres with little or no books. Just look at the following floor plans that popped up when I did a search Google Image for "Learning Commons" - Q. What do you notice? A. No to little books.
In 2008, Princeton (which of course is an Ivy League University) opened its new USD $74 million Peter B. Lewis Science Library. At the time the Bloomberg.com asked "But where are the books?" The "stacks you'd expect to find in [the library] have largely been banished to a surprisingly small high-density storage space in the basement." Clearly Cushing is not alone in "banning the book" - but is this Fahrenheit 451?
I have refrained from adding my two cents worth about Cushing and libraries without books until I noticed the following post and associated comments in Kathryn Greenhill's excellent "Librarians Matter" blog and I quote.
"During community consultation about the new library in the last few years, the requests have been for books, books and more books. Some of the new libraries I most admire have created more room for users and less room for books. There are so many new formats, accessed so many different ways. To me much of print publishing has morphed into a “push that product, move those units” cynical marketing exercise, that often does not give or expect sustained intellectual effort by either writer or reader. How can I support what the community obviously wants while bringing to them also the online, alternative and exciting content that exists in other formats and via other channels?"
Kathryn raises some very real concerns, and like a lot of librarians I feel we are all still working this out. Don't get me wrong I love books, and as I write this post I am in my study surrounded by bookshelves groaning under the weight of many, many books. BUT...
Are the options available to us really limited to books or no books, and how much of the debate is driven by a very deep emotional attachment to the physical item rather than a objective debate about the future of libraries and the best way to deliver information? Notice this is a question, not a statement. I work in a law library, and more and more legal information is only available online. Yet when we recently moved the library we were obliged to take 9 bays (almost 50 metres) of the UK law reports, not because the clients use these reports (on the contrary they use the online version), but because they like the look of the bound volumes lined up on the wall. If we had discarded these bound reports we would have had some very unhappy campers.
For me there is a place for both book and the online. I suspect the balance depends very much on the type of library and the type of collection. In disciplines such as science, medicine and technology, by the time something some thing is published in a book it can be very much out of date. Yet I still like being surrounded by books, and going to bed with a Kindle is not the same as going to bed with a book.
Libraries cost money to run, and money is increasingly harder to find. So for me the debate has to be about what is the most cost effective and efficient way of delivering information to the client base, and what best meets the needs of most of the client most of the time within the allocated budget. I love books, but as a responsible librarian I don't think I can allow my love of books to get in the way of what is best for the clients and the future relevance and sustainability of the library. I also take comfort in the Aarhus Public Librarian's comment in the CNN.com/technology article about Cushing Academy in which Rolf Hapel say very simply "The library has never been just about books".