Mission of library must remain intact despite change

Credit: Josh Smith/jjs1 Credit: Josh Smith/jjs1

We hear “books are dead,” and we are immediately up in arms.

Books have existed in a relatively similar format to their present form for 2,000 years. For nearly the last 600 years, they have been omnipresent, mass-produced, and easily available. Now we are told that this form is dying, and we are seeing the effects on our libraries firsthand.

The fourth-generation Kindle series of e-book readers has launched and is selling better than ever. Electronic editions of books are outselling hardcover and paperback versions, and they have been for a year. Barnes & Noble is shifting its strategy to focus on digital media. Borders, failing to do the same, has closed down. The paper and bindings that have composed our idea of the word “book” for our entire lives are becoming quickly irrelevant and leaving libraries struggling.

Our own library at Carnegie Mellon is coping with similar challenges. The last decade has seen books being shipped out of Hunt Library to an off-campus book depository. Empty shelves were removed to make space for carrels, study rooms, and a café. These changes are likely to continue.

Technology is continuing to redefine the relationship among the student, the book, and the library. Students want more space dedicated to quiet studying and group work, with electrical outlets to power their laptops as they work late into the night. Less and less often, students will go to the library with the primary goal of finding a musty book with yellow-tinged pages to read.

Recently published books will become part of the rapidly growing rare book collection and stored at a depository until they are eventually sold off or digitized. The library’s sources of information will be databases, indexed and searchable. The challenges will be in making information-finding as rich as it once was — wandering through the stacks, easily seeing related works, finding knowledge through serendipity.

It is imperative to imagine a vision for Hunt for the next 10 years. Although the function of libraries is shifting from a space which houses collections of bound paper and ink to a technology-infused workspace, the concept of a library as a place that facilitates learning must remain intact.