April 19, 2018

New Florida University Unveils Bookless Library

Florida’s newest public university—Florida Polytechnic University (FPU)—is so new it doesn’t even have accreditation yet. Its mission is to educate students in the STEM fields, and Chief Information Officer Tom Hull describes it as part of a future “Silicon Valley East” between Orlando and Tampa. FPU features a lot of innovative, not to say controversial, departures from tradition, including a no-tenure model for its 26 newly hired professors and a library without physical books.

An architectural rendering of the Innovation, Science and Technology  building, courtesy of Florida Polytechnic University

The Innovation, Science and Technology building
courtesy of Florida Polytechnic University

FPU’s flagship structure is the Innovation, Science and Technology (IST) Building. A white dome topped with 12-story-high butterfly wings with louvered panels that move to shade the 162,000-square-foot creation from the Florida sun, the IST was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and cost $60 million dollars to construct. It houses classrooms, labs, and office space, as well as the library.

The 11,000-square-foot Florida Polytechnic library, on the second floor of the IST Building, is open in design and modern in furnishings. Called The Commons, it is staffed by a six-person library team that’s headed by Director of Libraries Kathryn Miller. There are also two additional full-time librarians and three part-time faculty members who are available to assist students and faculty with research.

Kathryn Miller, director of FPU's library, in The Commons Photo courtesy of Florida Polytechnic University

Kathryn Miller, director of FPU’s library, in The Commons
Photo courtesy of Florida Polytechnic University

Reaching for relevance

Miller references this year’s OCLC report “At a Tipping Point: Education, Learning and Libraries,” which “encourages libraries to rethink their book brand to stay relevant.” To keep FPU’s library not only relevant, but serving as a catalyst for collaboration and an integral part of Florida Polytechnic’s academic life, the library will be embedded in the curriculum and a librarian will be part of an ethics class, presenting on plagiarism and how to properly research and use gathered materials. Faculty working part-time in the library will help foster the connection between the classroom and the Commons. The library will also coordinate tutoring, and there will also be a library desk located in the university’s single dorm with a student worker available to help with research. Miller also says the library intends to turn STEM into STEAM, hosting musical performances and other arts programs.

As for the electronic-only aspect of the library resources, Miller emphasized that it’s the information that’s key, not its form, and the student’s appropriate use of it. “We want our students to recognize when they have an information need,” she says, “and be able to locate the relevant information to apply it in a scholarly and, ultimately, professional way.”

The opening day collection

Florida Polytechnic’s entering class of 500 will have access to FPU’s own 135,000 licensed ebooks, plus a patron-driven acquisition program with an annual budget of $60,000 (part of the libraries $500,000 total budget) through which students and faculty can view an ebook the university doesn’t own once for free. Upon the second viewing, the item is automatically purchased. Unfortunately, Florida Polytechnic cannot access the State University Library system’s shared ebook collection because the licenses were created before the school was established, but Miller says the school will seek to share ebooks with other universities as opportunities arise.

While they can’t yet access the state’s ebook holdings, FPU students and faculty can access electronic journals through the more than 65 databases available through the State University Library’s Florida Virtual Campus. The school’s own additional science and engineering-focused online journal holdings serve the school’s STEM mission—including EBSCO Computers and Applied Science Complete, EBSCO Engineering Source, IEEE Electronic Library (Xplore), and the Cambridge, Oxford, Sage, Springer, and Wiley journal collections, among other resources—and are available via the library’s LibGuides site. There, library staff can be reached by email or chat, in addition to their in-person help in The Commons.

The hardware available in The Commons to help students access all these electronic resources includes 30 desktop computers as well as 12 laptops and 12 tablets that are available for checkout.  Twelve collaboration rooms with large monitors provide space for students to work on group projects. Desktop workstations, laptops, and tablets will also be located throughout the campus.

For technology help, The Commons has a staffed IT desk in addition to the research assistance available at the Academic Success Desk.

Although there will be printers available if a student wants a hard copy of an article, they will be encouraged to use the “Build Your Own Poly Library” system to electronically organize their research information instead. It is based on ProQuest Flow, a cloud-based collaboration platform. For a different kind of printing, the IST building will have a lab with more than 55 MakerBot 3D printers and scanners.

A legacy of print

Florida Polytechnic does have a few print volumes—it inherited a 7,000-book collection from the Florida Industrial Phosphate Research Institute (FIPR) Library, located in nearby Bartow. FIPR Library Director Karen Stewart works one day a week at the IST building and manages the FIPR library the rest of the week. It also inherited another 7,000 books from the USF Polytechnic library, which closed this summer, prior to the school’s closure in 2015. FPU is currently evaluating how to utilize this collection, said Miller.  (Florida Polytechnic inherited more than just print books from USF Polytechnic—in November 2011, the USF Board of Governors approved a plan for USF Polytechnic to separate from the USF system, but the state government instead dissolved USF Polytechnic and created FPU, transferring USF Polytechnic’s $30.7 million state budget to the new school.)

In addition, Florida Polytechnic students and faculty will be able to check out up to five items at a time from the 95,000-plus volume collection on the campus of nearby Polk State College (which shared a campus with USF Polytechnic). And there are roughly six million print titles available for student and faculty access from the State University Library system.

Joining the bookless club

So far, while the steady shift from print to digital formats is well underway, legacy print collections mean that fully bookless libraries are still so rare as to be mostly a novelty. While the public Bexar County, TX, bookless library has received the most media attention, and is joined by a school library in Minnesota and even two NASA libraries, FPU is not alone in the academic world, either. Among its compatriots are the American University of Nigeria, where 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker Amed Demirhan built a 99 percent electronic library, and The Applied Engineering and Technology (AET) Library at The University of Texas at San Antonio, launched in 2010. It was nearly joined by John Hopkins University’s Welch Medical Library in 2011, when the university initially planned to close the physical space completely and move the collection entirely online in response to shifting usage patterns. Though it did move the collection primarily online, the decision to close the physical space was put off and reviewed. According to Library Director Anne Seymour, “For now we are open and will be for the foreseeable future.”

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  1. First of all, the building that houses the library looks beautiful. Judging from the second picture, however, the inside seems like it might fell a bit sterile even if it is clean, bright and modern. I think a bookless library may need more familiar design elements to make it a welcoming atmosphere – so that value of the library brand accrued over centuries is still present even if the books aren’t.

    Thanks for the article.

    • I agree with you about the inside of the facility. It looks very cold and uninviting, but maybe that suits Florida? I don’t know Florida’s decorating style. I just don’t feel excited about learning looking at that space. It feels unfinished. Or more like a hospital than a place to gather and discuss ideas.

    • Brian Williams says:

      Actually, it looks like this picture of the Commons area was taken before it was populated with furniture. My son attends at FPU and they purchased a bunch of Herman Miller furniture to fill up the commons area. This includes couches, chairs, tables, and divider walls. It looks much different, and more inviting now, then it does in this photo. They want the Commons area to be home away from home for students between classes and after school. My son loves to study there, even though he has just finished his first week after opening.

  2. The University of Minnesota Rochester opened its doors in 2008 and has a virtual library. Our students study healthcare-related fields and do their research online. We do have access to the physical collection of the university system, but the undergrads rarely take advantage of that particular resource.

    It’s interesting that UMR is so rarely cited in stories like this, given that we were one of the pioneers of the concept! I invite you to learn more about us: r.umn.edu.

    • Several thoughts:
      1) Is a bookless library more adapted to a scientific research center than a classical liberal arts college? Would literature or history majors respond favorably to a bookless library?

      2) How would the survey responders in the ACRL article, “Servng Higher Education’s Highest Goals: Assessment of the Aademic Libary as Place” http://crl.acrl.org/content/72/5/428.abstract. respond to a bookless library?

  3. What a fascinating article! I thoroughly enjoyed learning about this library- the future sure is here! Thank you Ms. Riley and Library Journal for such an interesting and detailed story. I also enjoyed the lovely photos.

  4. I’m always surprised when physical libraries purposely choose to go entirely online. I’ve worked at two online-only libraries (at entirely online institutions), and having no print collection poses some real challenges. Not all ebooks have licenses that allow library use, and some items are simply not available as ebooks at all. This may not be a huge problem for some libraries, but it certainly causes headaches at the graduate level. A surprising number of major theoretical works were simply outside our ability to purchase. Mid-century academic titles are especially hard to get (they’re often orphan works), and buying out online embargoes is shockingly costly. In my experience, most students aren’t thrilled to hear “you have no option but to buy a copy yourself,” especially when it’s a title that is reasonably popular among students. And textbooks? They’re almost never available for online library collections. Textbook publishers have made sure of that!

    I guess this is a gimmicky way to get some media attention and look futuristic, but this has the real impact of making many materials simply out of bounds, or the library is not truly paperless (as in this case, where students still have a huge print collection they can easily access).

  5. Paul Deane says:

    How is a library book less when it has 60,000 books and an aggressive buying on demand program? Why is an electronic book not a book?

  6. Fred Stielow says:

    The fully online American Public University System’s Online Library has been leading this pack for a decade. Indeed, APUS is the number one user of JSTOR, Alexander Street, LibGuides and stands within the top ten for EBSCO and ProQuest’s services.

  7. This appears to be great financial undertaking. What happened to your paper collection after you went digital. Have you been able to gauge the use of the digital resources when compared to previous use of physical books. How does this impact the issue of plagiarism and students cutting and pasting from online sources.

    Some feedback would be appreciated.

    • Meredith Schwartz Meredith Schwartz says:

      Hi Caroline,

      Because this is a brand new university, there was no preexisting physical collection or previous use.

      All the best,


  8. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    Actually it looks like a set from Logan’s Run. The librarian better check the crystal embedded in her hand to make sure it’s not blinking red and she has to report to Carousel.

  9. Thanks a lot for such a good article, however when you talk of only science and technology using the book-less library how about those of Arts, don’t you think they are left out and yet they also need such technology during their study?, think about it

  10. Doesn’t the lack of book defeats the purpose of going to a library? I love the smell of paper and old pages in a library, and it won’t be the same when materials are digitized.