Every few months it seems someone gets excited about a “bookless” library, usually the people who work in them. Me, I don’t see what the big deal is.
The latest story about one comes from the esteemed Library Journal, where we find out that the brand new Florida Polytechnic University has a library with no physical books. Their professors also don’t have tenure, but that’s becoming so common it’s hardly worth noting anymore.
Go ahead, take a look at the photo of that library interior. The library has all the charm of a display office set up at Ikea.
In fact, it was that picture that made me realize why I’d never want to work in a bookless library.
It’s not that I’m especially wedded to the idea of reading books made of paper. To claim that those are the only “real” books is a form of superstition. Codex, computer, tablet, phone, I don’t really care about the mode of delivery as long as the content’s good.
And it’s not just that I think ebooks are questionable investments for libraries, although they can be depending on what you think you’re doing.
If the goal is just to get access to the latest books quickly and for a limited amount of time and you’re willing to pay a lot for the privilege, then an all-ebook library makes sense.
It’s no surprise that FPU focuses entirely on STEM subjects. My library probably doesn’t have any physical books left for those fields. So it’s also not that the students are missing opportunities for research that they would be in other fields.
Mostly it’s just the way that library looks. The outside of the building looks stunning, but look at the room of the library.
It’s bland and soulless. It looks so much like the “library of the future” that I imagined those little accent tables scattered about the place were actually little four-legged robots guarding the premises from humans. They just look like tables to trick students into sitting near them.
If you blink, they scurry to different places, always slightly closer to you, until you’ll never blink again.
Looking at the photo that way, the librarian’s welcoming smile seems more wary, like she’s watching those robot tables out of the corner of her eye to make sure they behave.
While I was feeling superior I took a walk in my own library and thought about other libraries I’ve visited over the years. Then I realized that without the books, all those libraries would look the same, just vast empty soulless spaces. It was kind of depressing.
My library has a reference area, as most libraries do. It has lots of books in it, sitting mostly undisturbed while students work quietly at the tables.
I can’t remember the last time I touched a print reference book, but the books give the area a character that it otherwise wouldn’t have.
With the books, it’s a library. Without them, it’s just a study hall. Instead of a warehouse for old books, it’s a warehouse for bored students.
The FPU library also needs some bored students sitting at the robot tables sipping lattes and working on their laptops, but having a few shelves of books around would also improve the vibe. Or at least some wallpaper that looks like bookshelves. Trompe-l’œil books would probably do the trick.
Now I’m going to thumb through some of those reference books that I haven’t touched for years. I’m feeling nostalgic for the Third New International Dictionary, on a dictionary stand, at a library table. One of those would be heavy enough to slow the robot tables down enough so that I could get away.