Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Yet Another Bookless Library

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.



  1. Anonymous Librarian says:

    To quote Gloria in Auntie Mame, “Books are so decorative, don’t you think?”

  2. Peter Ward says:

    A library without books is not a “library.” Yes, it’s that simple. Call it something else. The library as we used to know it is almost gone. A tragic loss.

    • I agree that it would be a tragic loss if libraries were almost gone… But I don’t think they are. Have you been to a Carnegie library lately? Mine still has original bookshelves, and stained glass. And of course we offer e-books, and computers and more… but I don’t think its quite time to mourn the loss of “library.”

    • Peter Ward says:

      Mail, thank goodness there are a few libraries like yours still around. But for how long?

    • Bonegirl06 says:

      How so? Pretty much every town in my area has a local library. Some are even really beautiful building from the turn of the century. None are in danger of being closed down.

  3. While I think it is a little unnerving to see a library looking so vast, hip, clean, and bookless, I do think it emphasizes that libraries aren’t just about books – and that’s a good thing. Libraries are about people, community, information, and librarians. If having a bookless library means the general public’s mindset about libraries is able to understand the importance of libraries outside of books, then I think it’s a step in the right direction, especially for library advocacy.

  4. I was struck by the materials budget- $500,000 for a university? At our small (19,375 pop.) public library, we have a materials budget of $540,000.

    • Frumious Bandersnatch says:

      I read that as “bare minimum investment needed to stay accredited”. After all, if they actually cared about having a library, they’d have one.”

    • just sayin says:

      That kind of materials budget in a town of less that 20,000 is unimaginable. Let me guess: Ohio?

    • Wow! I’m in a county system of, population just under a million, and our budget is under $350k.

  5. sciencereader says:

    The interior of that library looks like a caricature.

  6. The point of the books is to have stacks so that you can secretly eat an entire large hot pizza without a librarian noticing!

    • We just let people eat in the library. Once you have a coffee shop in the foyer, and you have proper insect control in your building, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify a “We will sell you food, but you can’t eat it here!” policy.

      We do have a “No typing on our computers while eating greasy food with your fingers” policy…

      (Not representing my employer)

  7. “With the books, it’s a library. Without them, it’s just a study hall.”
    Perfect. Although I think the missing management nomenclature is “learning space”.

  8. anonymous says:

    Number of bookless libraries: two or three. Number of libraries in the US with books: over 100,000. Remind me again what the problem is?

  9. Actually, if you’ve read about some of the nasty battles (i.e. Connecticut) about tenure, you’ll discover that college professors without tenure is not a commonplace thing.

  10. At the gym where I work out, a broken locker has a sign that reads “This locker will not lock.” At first I thought that a locker that will not lock is not really a locker, but something else. Then I decided that a woodchuck remains a woodchuck without regard for whether or not it chucks wood. The facility described in this article is a physical place in which people access digital materials, which does not distinguish meaningfully from any other place in the world. It’s more like calling the bathroom the “library” because it is a place where one reads on occasion. If this is a library, then the word “library” has changed in meaning to something more like “place” or “location.”

    I love physical books as much as anyone, but if they have anything at all to do with “soul,” it does not lie in their physical existence, but in their incorporeal presence.

  11. I also agree that it is a misnomer to call what is really an ‘e-reading space’ by the name ‘library’. When researching the word ‘library’, we find it is derived from a Latin root for one of the words for book – ‘liber’, plural ‘libri’. Modern Italian still uses ‘il libro’ for a book, ‘i libri’ for more than one book.
    Interestingly, a library in modern romance languages is ‘ la biblioteca’ while a bookshop (still a collection of books) is ‘la libreria’.

    Hence ‘library’ does, in its purest sense, mean a collection of books. While a collection of ebooks may also in essence be called a ‘library’, perhaps it should actually be called an ‘elibrary’, then we may discern that it is a collection of ebooks as opposed to books.

  12. David Sant says:

    CILIP and its illustrious predecessor have encouraged this cyber-bilge over the years. So no wonder its now in the ascendancy.

  13. [plaintively] I like IKEA display offices!

    • Such a good idea to move these reading rooms to IKEA sponsored spaces.

      At the end of a library session, customers could write down the stock number of pieces they like and pick them up on the way out.

      (You think I’m kidding, but IKEAs have soft-serve machines in them, and I’d really like my library to have one.)

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