Books? Or No Books? Envisioning the Academic Library of the Future

With increased focus on sharing of collections, consortial delivery programs, and collaboration amongst libraries in identifying and preserving print runs and last copies, the academic library is changing dramatically.
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We admit it -- we are librarians, and therefore book-centric! We can't help it. It is part of our genetic makeup to love books, and we can't remember a time in our lives when books were not present, or not important.


My earliest childhood memories are of my dad reading a bedtime story. Every Saturday we would head off to the library with a basket. My mother would always select books on British history; my father would select mysteries, travel tales or books about the sea. And me, well I would immerse myself in all those childhood classics from Little House on the Prairie to Nancy Drew. As I got older, my tastes would change, but the prospect of having a great book to read was always a constant in my life, and I suppose it is no surprise that I became a librarian!


A few weeks ago I informed a class of business students that our business and economics librarian really wasn't buying print books anymore -- only e-books. I expected this news to be greeted with elation, but instead I heard a loud collective groan. "But we LIKE books," they said, "REAL books." They couldn't exactly explain why they like "real" books. It seemed to have something to do with tactile sensations, and memories and personal space. I realized that these students still held a certain deep respect for the physical book.

The book still holds a powerful symbolic message of wisdom, intelligence and scholarship The next time you watch a television interview or news briefing or press conference, check out how often books or bookshelves are used as a backdrop. But the reality is our academic libraries are filled with books that no longer are being used. Walk through the stacks of any academic library and you will find a thin layer of dust on an awful lot of the books. Data tells us that the circulation of print collections in academic libraries is decreasing. With increased focus on sharing of collections, consortial delivery programs, and collaboration amongst libraries in identifying and preserving print runs and last copies, the academic library is changing dramatically. Yes, books will still be very much a part of the library of the future- but increasingly, libraries are taking a central role on campuses as cultural and creative centers.

And this makes so much sense. Libraries are spaces for everyone. Examine the patron count of use at academic libraries and you will see high numbers. Students want spaces that inspire learning and offer opportunities for the three C's: collaboration, creation and contemplation.

Collaboration: Group learning, problem-based learning and experiential learning are the current buzzwords on college campuses. These pedagogies require the right kinds of spaces to bring students together to discuss, solve problems and learn.

Creation: Libraries can, and should be centers for knowledge creation. Students are creating digital objects, publishing online journals, using media to tell their stories and share their research. Often this means delving into primary source materials in archives and special collections, curating content and creating online digital archives.

Contemplation: Anyone who has had the opportunity to study in any of the great libraries in this country or Europe, knows the feeling of gravitas and awe one experiences when sitting in the reading room. Spaces do inspire and inspiration leads to enhanced understanding and creativity.

So, where is all this heading? We want to paint a picture of the academic library of the future. There still will be books, but maybe not so many and perhaps not all on site. The library will be the central destination on campus attracting all students -- a vibrant, active space where knowledge creation and research go hand in hand. Library spaces will be collaborative with active learning classrooms associated with research seminars, filled with unique resources and artifacts to support student learning. The library will offer one stop "shopping" for students and faculty with the establishment of faculty development centers, as well as student writing and media creation centers. Furniture will be mobile and flexible to allow students to form study spaces at will. Electronic publishing and scholarly communication centers will assist students and faculty with publications.

Now comes the million dollar question -- what does all this mean for existing print collections?

Institutions have always taken great pride in the number of items held by their libraries. In fact, many of the key college rating guides still ask for number of volumes as a measure of academic merit. But is that really even relevant in today's world? Recently ITHAKA, an organization that "helps the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways" published this report: Can't Buy Us Love: The Declining Importance of Library Books and the Rising Importance of Special Collections

Yes, there will still be books, but perhaps an increased focus on those collections that are unique and special; offering students the opportunity to engage with primary source materials enhances learning and provides opportunities for knowledge creation and digital scholarship.

So, here is our advice in a nutshell: dust off those shelves and start thinking about the real future of our library spaces.

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