By Rebecca Schuman


If a college library moves 170,000 of its books to storage, to make room for sumptuous new administrative offices -- which is happening at Maine's Colby College -- does it still count as a library?

Or, as an impassioned open letter from concerned faculty attests, is it no longer "a place for reflection and deep thought, research and scholarship," but "a waiting room" sans books and a reference librarian, surrounded by temples to the new gods of the American university?

The Colby administration argues that the renovations are there to help the students, providing them with more study space. The student newspaper is less convinced, headlining an op-ed "Sorry, Your New Library Still Stinks."

The Colby case is but one example of a widespread move to re-appropriate library space in the age of digitization. From the University of Nebraska to the University of Edinburgh, from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas to Kent State, knowledge repositories the world over may soon have to change their names, because the liber -- the book -- will be increasingly hard to come by. In fact, the only major library to "resist" this trend, the New York Public Library, did so only reluctantly, and out of capitulation to a passionate, organized, grass-roots campaign.

The Bookies are quite right to want to save the stacks -- but not just for the reasons they give, all of which could be dismissed as the sentimental drowning cries of Luddites.


We must also save the stacks for another, more urgent reason altogether: Books, simply as props that happen also to be quite useful if you open them up, are the best -- perhaps the only -- bastions of contemplative intellectual space in the world.

The current cases for keeping the stacks will, as long as digital technology advances accordingly, eventually no longer apply. Some studies show, for now, that online reading creates worse readers -- that there is no replacement yet for the wonder of browsing.

Such intangibles are both vitally important to the university experience and irreplaceable digitally -- for now. But that will change. If digital technology is able or willing to recreate, more or less, the experience of physical stacks, while exceeding their storage capabilities, all that remains is a sentimental argument, which will be a hard one to win.

Yes, the preservation of knowledge is dependent upon the interaction with the past, and touching an old book is as visceral as that interaction gets. But, the futurists ask, is it really worth millions of dollars to dedicate valuable campus space to what basically amounts to a browsing-culture museum?

Also: that special feeling of browsing the stacks? Honestly pretty rare nowadays (not even all librarians have it). In my experience, undergrads have to be forced to research in books. Professional scholars, on the other hand, already know how to perform a sophisticated search, and can often have books pulled and delivered, so even we rarely walk into the stacks.

But there's one wholly unsentimental reason the stacks are both vital and irreplaceable, and that brings us back to Colby's decision to replace theirs with a gleaming shrine to the corporate bottom line. As more of the books disappear from college libraries, the people in charge of funding those libraries will be more tempted to co-opt that space for events that bring in revenue, or entice students for the wrong reasons: food courts. Gaming lounges.

Unless administrators make a protracted effort to preserve the contemplative and studious feeling, that feeling will disappear altogether, and the whatever-brary will become just another Jamba Juice.