Blog Post

Libraries Without Books?: Academic Edition

According to Inside Higher Ed, the University of Denver's Penrose Library is poised to make a mistake, much like the one at the Newport Beach Public Library which I wrote about a few weeks ago.

From the story:

But plans at the University of Denver to permanently move four-fifths of the Penrose Library’s holdings to an off-campus storage facility and renovate the building into an “Academic Commons,” with more seating, group space, and technological capacity, could make the university a flashpoint in the debate about whether the traditional function of storing books needs to happen on campus.

We are not alone in this trend of increasing central campus space for study, services and student learning and decreasing central campus space for legacy collections,” said Nancy Allen, dean and director of Penrose Library, in an e-mail statement.

The proposed change has raised the ire of some arts, humanities, and social science professors who say that, while impressive, technology hasn’t yet replaced a good old-fashioned trip through the stacks. They argue that the administration dropped the changes in their laps without consulting them and that it will harm their main mode of research.

“You would never ask a scientist to get rid of his or her laboratory,” said Annabeth Headrick, an art history professor. “But that’s exactly what’s being done to us.”

My university has similarly been moving more and more books to off-site, high-density storage (to make room for more computers, more video games, more tables).

But in addition to the ways that books play a vital role in the kind of community center the library can be (as I discussed before), browsing is a key way that the space of academic libraries are and should be used. Much has been written [PDF] about what Stephen Chabot terms "serendipitous browsing," so I won't belabor the point here.

Suffice it to say, in this rather short post, that the powerful influences on intellectual work in the humanities--physical proximity, material meandering, and more--are lost without stacks, without a library's books.

[co-posted at my other blog, bookmobility.]


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