Are University Libraries a Thing of the Past?

The cost of textbooks is rising, the print press is collapsing and the accessibility of digital resources seems like the perfect, cost-effective solution for financially challenged universities. Are the days of university libraries numbered?

Old books and glasses

Ever since the internet spread to more than a few thousand people, there have been predictions for the collapse of the print industry. The sudden ease with which people could share media seemed likely to destroy publishers, in the same way it’s crushing the music industry. Record shops which were once high-street staples began to empty and then close, with major book retailers following suit.

Universities across the globe are embracing the usefulness of digital media; the incredible intellectual advancements of the last few decades would have been impossible without the expansion of this technology across the educational sector. As this trend continues, we could be looking at entirely digital libraries, but is this a good thing or not?

The case for digital media

Digital university library, laptop showing books

Textbooks are more expensive than ever. In the US, for example, , or around 73% since 2006. Digital materials could offer a perfect solution, available for free through open textbook initiatives. This would enable universities to spend less on purchasing without sacrificing the academic credibility of published textbooks.

Finding information digitally is easier than finding it in a book. Digital information is instantly updatable, meaning it can be changed to react to new discoveries and convey new findings within seconds. It’s searchable, without the need to spend time manually hunting through books. It’s available to everyone with an internet connection and an electricity supply and it doesn’t require the storage space or upkeep required to look after physical books.

It’s unquestionable that digital media is more convenient than print. It’s easier to carry a tablet than a bag full of books, it’s easier to search with ctrl+f than using thousands of sticky notes, and highlighting is as simple as touching a screen. So does this simplicity mean that soon we’ll be looking at a rapid development of completely digital university libraries, like this one in Florida which is already entirely bookless?

What would be lost along with the books?

Tablet on a bookshelf in a university library

But “bookless libraries” is an oxymoron. If all our resources move to the digital realm, is there a need for a “library” at all? Remote accessing would, hypothetically, become the norm and a dedicated building would become unnecessary. All the benefits of e-books still don’t make a compelling argument for that.

We can ignore the fact that digital books are never explicitly owned by an individual, but simply rented from a company. And we can ignore the fact that people don’t take in as much information from digital readers as they do from print. But what we can’t ignore is that the eradication of libraries would be a startling blow to higher education.

University libraries are more than just rooms with books, they’re social hubs. They’re centres of collaboration and debate and it’s this collaboration, this exchange of ideas and opinions that fuels social, intellectual and scientific progress. Libraries are the places which advance societies, devise better world orders and spark revolutions.

And it’s the nature of the place that’s important. Digital media is the most significant development in education and research in history, but its isolating abilities are not conducive to education. People learn from each other.

Books and libraries may well be replaced by digital media one day– after all downloaded music replaced vinyl and record stores – but we should all be aware of what will be lost, as well as gained, if this happens.

How do you feel about the move away from print? Let us know on Twitter.

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