From e-books to no books

In the juggle of priorities on campus, books are falling off the shelf

Last month, the University of Texas at San Antonio announced it had built the world’s first bookless library. Its Applied Engineering and Technology Library offers access to 425,000 e-books and 18,000 e-journal subscriptions, and librarians say they’ve yet to hear a complaint from the 350-plus students and faculty who pass through its doors daily. “We’ve gotten no negative feedback,” says Krisellen Maloney, library dean at the University of Texas. “We looked at circulation rates, we looked at electronic resources, we looked at requests, and we decided that having the services was more important than the physical books.” She adds bluntly: “When we prioritized the needs, the books weren’t the priority.”

It used to be that the size of a collection defined a library’s greatness, but now with access to online academic journals and e-books, a large physical collection doesn’t yield the same competitive advantage.

Now the bookless trend is taking hold in Canada, where more and more libraries are expanding their electronic resources. “My own institution has increased its holdings exponentially,” says Ernie Ingles, vice-provost and chief librarian at the University of Alberta and president of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL). “Virtually 90 per cent of our journals are electronic now, without print equivalents, and I believe we have approaching one million e-books in one kind or another.” Ingles says that all the members of CARL, including the University of British Columbia, the University of Ottawa and Dalhousie University, are moving in a similar direction.

However, Roger Schonfeld, research manager at Ithaka S+R, a non-profit research organization that focuses on the impact of digital media in academia, cautions that digital materials can be censored or restricted.

Recall in July 2009 when Amazon deleted copies of George Orwell’s novels Animal Farm and 1984 from people’s Kindle devices over a licensing spat with a publisher. Also, smaller universities with tighter budgets that can’t afford an electronic archive can find themselves in a precarious position. “What we’re discovering is yes, you buy the archive, but then you have to buy access to the platform that the archive sits on,” says Marie De­Young, university librarian at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. “You’re always paying money hand over fist to the publishers because they own the content and they frequently own how you access the content.”

But it’s not just about accessing the information, it’s how well students are able to navigate through it.

Since the Internet became ubiquitous, DeYoung’s role as a librarian has changed dramatically. In the past, DeYoung says she might have spent 10 or 15 minutes with a student, but now the average time has increased to an hour. “When they’re asking us for assistance, it’s not for the easy stuff anymore, it’s the hard stuff,” says DeYoung. Gohar Ashoughian, university librarian at the University of Northern British Columbia, is managing a pilot project called iRoam, which sees five librarians armed with iPads roaming the libraries acting as a “mobile reference service.” When students need help they can page a roaming librarian who will then come and provide support. Ashoughian says the pilot is a success.

Servicing readers is only one part of the library, though. “We’re in the business of preservation as well,” says Ingles, “making sure that these assets are available many, many years into the future.” Ingles says digital is no less ephemeral than print. He is working to address “bit rot”: the “digital medium itself will deteriorate over relatively short periods of time, five, 10, 15 years.”

But for all the easy access and quantity of online scholarship, Mitch Renaud, 21, in the third year of his composition music major at the University of Toronto, says there’s “a privilege to having a large library.”

Renaud, who frequents the music library, says, sure, there are holes in the collection, but “there’s quite a bit of that that is difficult to find online.” And while he enjoys accessing digital resources like Oxford’s Grove Music Online, he says that “a lot of learning a piece is to be able to write on the music, and make notes on interpretive things to do.” Laptops and the Kindle or iPad can’t replicate that—yet. Renaud adds: “There’s something about being in the Hart House library that would be lost sitting at home in front of a computer terminal.”

Still, without the library’s real estate being taken up by print, the University of Texas’s Maloney says the space is now full of students instead of books. “If you’re walking through any of our libraries, you see students studying all over the place,” says Maloney. “It’s the heart of the university.”