Libraries without books

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, an English professor mourns the loss of browsable stacks in favor of newly digitized libraries without books.

What does it mean when the University of Texas at Austin removes nearly all of the books from its undergraduate library to make room for coffee bars, computer terminals, and lounge chairs? . . .

Many entering students come from nearly book-free homes. Many have not read a single book all the way through; they are instead trained to surf and skim. Teachers increasingly find it difficult to get students to consult printed materials, and yet we are making those materials even harder to obtain. Online journal articles are suitable for searching and extraction, but how conducive is a computer for reading a novel?

I also suspect that retrieval of books in the context of food service and roving helpers inculcates in students a disturbing combination of passivity and entitlement, as if they are diners in a fancy restaurant rather than students doing their homework. The “learning commons” seems consistent with the consumerist model of education that we all recognize: “I deserve an ‘A’ because I’m paying a lot of money to come here (even if I spend all my time playing video games and hanging out at the new campus fitness center).”

Via Arts & Letters Daily.

About Joanne


  1. I learned a lot, and found a lot of valuable sources in college from open stacks. Seeing what books were on the shelf with the one I was looking for allowed me to make connections that Amazon’s recommendations simply don’t.

  2. Well, not having open stacks would solve one problem for me: finding eighteen books I MUST read RIGHT NOW (that are on topics other than the one I am researching) as I go through the stacks looking for what I came for.

    That said: didn’t a lot of college libraries used to be not-open stacks? As in, you had to ask for it and the librarian would go and get it? I seem to remember my mother talking about at least some of the U of Mich. libraries being that way when she was there.

    But yeah, I would kind of agree with the assessment of “adding to sense of entitlement” and “passivity,” given what I’ve seen of some of this current generation of college students. (Not all, by all means; a lot of the students I’ve had would probably hate the closed-stacks system because they want to get their own darn books themselves).

    And I wonder – couldn’t this be seen as an anti-egalitarian step by some, a locking-up of information so that only a few are allowed open access to it? I’d be kind of creeped out if I walked into a library and told I wasn’t allowed to just browse any more, that I had to find the book I needed on the online catalog and then ask someone to retrieve it for me. (Not to add – most online catalogs I’ve dealt with are clunky and horribly and user-unfriendly. I prefer to memorize the locations of the topics that I use frequently and just go there to look for what I need on the shelf, bypassing the computer altogether).

    And – am I the only one who has a problem with “food courts” or “coffeeshops” in libraries? Doesn’t having muffins and stuff around increase the risk of cockroaches and other potentially book-eating vermin? Not to mention, I’d scream bloody murder if one of my favorite topic-sections was reduced or eliminated just so someone can come and drink coffee while they use the free online access…

  3. IIRC, the Library of Congress has closed stacks and won’t allow books to leave the building. As much as I would love to browse one of the world’s largest collections, this is one case where I agree that ensuring no book gets lost or damaged is worth the inconvenience to scholars.

    Open or closed stacks is mainly a matter of how much the library wants to protect their collection. With open stacks, people can replace books in the wrong place so they might go missing for years, or walk off without checking them out so they are indeed lost. However, most books aren’t that valuable. Browsing the stacks, I find things I’d never have thought to go looking for directly. That makes books in open stacks of far more value to the public than books locked away are. Rare and irreplaceable books would be an exception.

    If you let people eat in the library, obviously the books aren’t very valuable and you might as well have open stacks. (There I go, using logic again. 😎

    In the old days, most libraries I used had open stacks for books, but the more fragile periodical collections were closed stack.

  4. I doubt that this decision has much to do with protecting the collections…it probably has much more to do with being trendy.

    It would be a very good thing if those who mainly want to be “with it” could be persuaded to go into the fashion industry, and not to burden other institutions (particularly education) with their ideas.

  5. Libraries with out books .. gets a little Farenheit 451 for me. Although my own grandmother taught in a one room school in rural Kentucky in the 1920’s … books were at a premium. Many a course in literature was taught with one copy being read outloud.. She graduated many students who went on to be Doctors, Lawers and Indian Chiefs (so to speak). On a note. I have a concern that HS students are allowd too many electives and it is a big factor in missing out on course work at traditional HSs. I know in fact that JROTC can be taken every day for a full hour in a system close to Nashville Tennessee. It actually counts as a HS credit – elective – and can be taken with Band and Voc Ed. THat would be 3 non “basics” hours a day.. anyone have a thought about how that affects the general concern for reading?

  6. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Open stacks with your sweetie were [was?] fun.

    The $100 laptop has made the library obsolete.

  7. Katherine C says:

    I think this is horrible. I remember when I was a kid the library always seemed like magic, and part of the magic is in the browsing. Even now I love to walk along and study the titles, waiting until one pops out at me and I just have to pick it up. I discovered some of my favorite books that way. I also agree that it’s horribly irresponsible to bring food vendors into libraries. Seriously, sometimes I wonder what’s going on in people’s mind.

  8. Oh come on, did anyone actually read the article to which the English professor linked? It’s available at

    Relevant quote: “Nearly all of the 90,000 volumes contained in the undergraduate library are being carted off this summer to other libraries on the campus to make room for an ‘information commons’ — a growing trend at colleges and universities around the country.”

    Now one can quibble with whether this is the best use of university dollars (though as every good economics student would know, one cannot assume that the money spent on the commons would have gone to buying books), but to argue that you can’t browse books anymore (Katherine C), or that this resembles totalitarian opression (WrdBrn) is far, far beyond any reasonable conclusion from the evidence at hand.

    Not one hour ago, I was helping a group of high schoolers do research at Perkins Library at Duke (the main branch, which happens to be undergoing an extensive expansion). The demise of the printed book has been greatly exaggerated.

  9. What kind of sense does an “information commons” make, anyway? The whole point of the Internet is that it is *geography independent*. Why access the information from an expensive facility when you can access it equally well from your dorm room (or, if you want coffee, from Starbucks?)

  10. Hey, Stephen, Perkins was precisely one of the open stack libraries I was talking about.

    Is the Q&A book still as much fun as it used to be?

  11. My university’s in the process of taking out books and putting in computer labs. I don’t have any problem with the process at all, because I’ve never had any problem getting ahold of the books I wanted. Anything my library doesn’t have (and the collection wasn’t that extensive even BEFORE the remodeling) I can order from about 200 universities around the country. I’ve never found a book, no matter how obscure, that the Interlibrary Loan people can’t get to me within a week.

  12. Eric, Perkins’ open stacks are indeed wonderful. And the “Answer Person” is still churning out his (or her, or their) material. There was an article in the Herald-Sun about it last May, but I can’t get it to load–probably it’s in paid archives now.

  13. Mike in Texas says:


    Where can I get one of those $100 laptops?

  14. “IIRC, the Library of Congress has closed stacks and won’t allow books to leave the building.”

    Closed stacks, yes, but it IS possible to get borrowing privileges. You have to be a Member of Congress or congressional staff, though.

    I love the LOC, and spent much of my senior year as an undergrad there (I cursed American’s thesis requirement for history majors at the time, but I’m gratefful for it now). The Main Reading Room in the Jefferson Building…they sure don’t make anything like that anymore.


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