Back in the 1940s, college libraries had something of an existential crisis. Charles Gosnell, a prominent library-sciences scholar and college librarian in New York, suggested that shifting academic priorities and space constraints threatened to deplete certain book collections, particularly those in highly technical fields such as chemistry, economics, and education. By phasing out the seemingly antiquated books, perhaps libraries would also be divesting themselves of the titles’ particular perspectives or scientific frameworks, many of which could be invaluable. New books had begun to far outnumber older titles in libraries’ collections, a trend that Gosnell described in his article as “book mortality”.
Libraries pulled through, of course, but then the rise of the internet renewed fears of obsolescence. So far, the internet has not killed libraries either. But the percentage of higher-education budgets dedicated to libraries has been dwindling since the 1980s, and at many institutions there’s been a corresponding drop in reported spending on print materials while that on electronic resources has grown.
Likely in the hopes of proving that they have more to offer than a simple internet connection does, many college libraries are pouring resources into interior-design updates and building renovations, or into “glitzy technology,” such as 3-D printers and green screens, that is often housed in “media centers” or “makerspace”. The goal is, ultimately, to stay relevant and increase appeal.
Yet much of the glitz may be just that -- glitz. Survey data and experts suggest that students generally appreciate libraries most for their simple, traditional offerings: a quiet place to study or collaborate on a group project, the ability to print research papers, and access to books. Notably, many students say they like relying on librarians to help them track down hard-to-find texts or navigate scholarly journal databases. “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers,” as the writer Neil Gaiman once said. “A librarian can bring you back the right one.”
Some colleges see libraries as prime real estate that can hold any number of miscellaneous student services, from tutoring to child care. As the college grows and space becomes tight, a library that sometimes looks empty might be a tempting target for administrators trying to maximize the use of space on their campuses. Such tides of change threaten the core of library practices and values.
So-called digital natives still crave opportunities to use libraries as libraries, and many actively seek out physical texts—92 percent of the college students surveyed in a 2015 study, for example, said they preferred paper books to electronic versions. Duke University’s 2016 survey of its students drew similar conclusions, finding that book delivery was one of the most important services to students; fancy library services fell much lower on students’ priority lists.
Many college libraries are reinventing themselves, but perhaps they’re trying to fix an institution that isn’t, in fact, broken.
The Atlantic Oct 4, 2019