A library at the University of Texas-Austin is facing an existential quandary that’s likely to feel familiar to bookstores and libraries all over the US. In the age of speedy search and deliver, how useful is the presence of physical books?
Last summer, the school’s library of fine arts took 75,000 books and periodicals from its shelves and moved them to off-site storage. It was part of the university’s effort to bring more people into the library by, among other things, clearing room for a new “maker space” with a 3D printer and other tech hardware. The college found itself the subject of fierce criticism from library patrons, however. In March, around 50 students and staff protested a talk by the dean of the fine arts college, carrying signs that said, “A library without books is not a library.”
“Just because we’re not checking them out does not mean we’re not using them,” Abby Sharp, a junior, told student newspaper the Daily Texan.
The university dean has stated that the fine arts library will not close altogether, as had been rumored on campus. It will also renovate the space that houses the remaining 200,000-book collection, and cut down on book-retrieval times. But the removal of the thousands of books stands.
Keeping books offsite is routine for academic libraries, where browsing for one’s next great beach read is not the most common use case. But the dispute is a reminder of the power of books not just as reading material but as meaningful objects: not ornamentation or sculpture, but a physical reminder of amassed knowledge. As libraries and bookstores seek to compete with instant access to free and cheap information, by bolstering community through classes, live events, and internet access, they’ll have to reckon with this, too.