Bookless libraries increase accessibility

Jackson Lane Nov 16, 2009

Cushing Academy in Massachusetts gained national attention in September when it announced plans to replace its collection of more than 20,000 books with a massive electronic database.
Carnegie Mellon has for years already been building its own “bookless library”: “For the nearly 15 years I’ve been in the Carnegie Mellon Libraries, we’ve been working hard to provide the campus with what I think is a very realistic view of the library of the future. We are working towards a hybrid of an online and paper-based library,” computer science librarian Missy Harvey explained.

“We have become a leader in the field of digitizing important materials to make them available online. Carnegie Mellon’s libraries are currently working on a number of [digitization] projects to expand its inventory of online books and resources,” Harvey said.

The rarity of many works in the Posner Memorial Collection highlights the advantages of the increased accessibility and longevity of electronic republishing. “Rare books [can be] scanned and delivered via the World Wide Web to scholars in places such as Argentina and Germany who could not visit the books,” Mary Catharine Johnsen, the special collections and design librarian, said. “Electronic versions save wear and tear on using the physical book, which is important if you are a book from 1755 and your leather spine is dry and cracking.”

While increased accessibility and longevity are inherent to any form of publication, an electronic format may have advantages over a physical format, and many students at Carnegie Mellon are asking for online versions of works already widely available in paper.

“We have been moving from paper journal subscriptions to online journals — eJournals — for many years. We are purchasing eBook versions of reference books because they lend themselves to being used primarily online,” Harvey explained.

There are many who have concerns about transitioning to an electronic medium. Johnsen points out that the idea of a bookless library is still very new and its execution has not yet been perfected. “I know of a project where many books were sent from the United States to foreign countries for cheap scanning. The books returned disbound and tied in bundles and unusable as books,” recounted Johnsen. “The pixels were not sent back to the United States in an accessible form. Therefore, until the pixels are accounted for, the books have died.”

Johnsen also said that even in successful scans of books to electronic formats, the many subtleties in a book’s presentation and metadata may be lost in an online medium. “For literature students, you really want to see the original format of the work as received by its first public. Was it a fancy coffee-table book? Was it a cheap paperback or flimsy pamphlet? Was it a colorful book to tempt you in a Victorian train station or an airport bookstall?”

Even in more quantitative and technical subjects where aesthetic presentation is often not as important as actual content and data, many still seem to prefer books to electronic documents.
“When learning about quantum mechanics, mathematical logic, polymer chemistry, and numerous other complex fields, I continue to observe users preferring to touch pencil to paper — to engage the physical book — rather than read the dense content solely online,” Harvey said. “Some think that the sciences, in particular, lend themselves to shifting towards accessing everything online. Yet so far, the evidence doesn’t support the hypothesis.”

In fact, according to Harvey, the most popular library books at Carnegie Mellon are in computer science.

Regardless of whether they have books or not, both Harvey and Johnsen predict that libraries will keep their roles as areas of study, research, and learning. “A library is still a place to come to think, ponder, read, study with others, and other activities of learning,” Johnsen said. “One of our main missions is to help students and faculty learn how to use different types of information and to access them and to use them efficiently. This is now more important than ever.”

Harvey also said, “Our educational community looks to librarians to help them learn how to navigate the complex information landscape.”

However, James Tracy, the headmaster of Cushing Academy, explained his decision to replace his school’s books: “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.”