I have a good deal of sympathy for Gracy Howard’s critique of bookless libraries — but I also have a good deal of sympathy for librarians who make the choices that Howard regrets.

Librarians have always had to deal with two varieties of scarcity: they never have enough money to buy all the books and periodicals and films they’d like to be able to provide, and they rarely have enough room to store the items that they already have while also providing space for the library’s users to work and play. Scarcity creates difficult choices: according to the iron law of opportunity costs, every item purchased is another item foregone. And many libraries struggle to display what they own: if they have the money, they pay to store infrequently-used items, and if they don’t, they sell those items or simply throw them away. (It was this seemingly callous discarding of books and periodicals that aroused first the ire and then the collector’s passion of Nicholson Baker, many years ago.)

The shift to electronic resources does a lot to address these problems. Many, many resources are free, thanks to endeavors like Project Gutenberg and the wonderful new Digital Public Library of America; people who can’t afford internet access can now hold whole libraries of literature in their hands and can view great works of art on public computers. And new resources can be constantly added without the expense of space: nothing needs to be discarded.

Like Gracy Howard, I love physical books and the serendipities of browsing. But if I were a librarian, it would be really hard for me to stick to paper codices at the cost of limiting, quite severely, the resources I could offer to my users.