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Are Libraries for Books or People?

Gracy struck a nerve with many yesterday when she reported [1] on (my alma mater) NC State University’s new Hunt Library [2], which uses a robo-retrieval system to store the vast majority of its collection, rather than having its books in browsable stacks.

I share her love of browsing a library’s shelves, wandering through the stacks in search of a serendipitous surprise, happening upon the book you needed while looking for the book you wanted. The prospect of a trend in library building that leaves the books behind altogether, like Bexar County’s “BiblioTech [3]” saddens me.

But library builders are not just servants to the digital fad, throwing away “outdated” modes of reading for newer, glitzier models. They are confronting real challenges, and having to evaluate important trade-offs. NC State, in particular, faced a stark challenge when it began designing the Hunt Library.

The policy for UNC-system schools dictates that universities provide library seating for 20 percent of the student body. NC State has around 26,000 undergraduate students, and many more graduate students, across colleges including Agriculture, Engineering, a Vet School, Textiles, and Design in addition to more traditional colleges of the liberal arts and sciences. Even after the construction of the enormous Hunt Library, State will only have the capacity for around 10 percent of its student body.

Before Hunt opened on the new engineering campus, the flagship library on main campus, D.H. Hill, where I spent many of my studying hours, would be regularly filled to bursting during the periodic peaks of the semester’s workload. It had very good study spaces, including a Special Collections reading room lined with books and populated by old-fashioned, broad, wooden tables and chairs. There just weren’t nearly enough of them.

So when the designers of the Hunt Library were sketching their first blueprints, they had to ask themselves a question: are university libraries, and their floorspace, for the books, or those studying them? Much is made of the technology in the Hunt Library, and I have no doubt that NCSU students have access to more technological tools at Hunt than at almost any other university library. Some will be used productively, some for play, and some will be unused, as students can’t quite figure out what to make of strange gadgets.

But what is perhaps more significant are the study spaces spanning what would traditionally be the domain of the stacks. Collaborative study spaces can be a true feature for the new university library, providing a sense of place dedicated to academic pursuits that accommodates a burgeoning student body. What Hunt does provide is variety in environments, so that groups [4] of [5] any [6] size [7] can congregate to grind through o-chem, or stumble through thermodynamics together.

One of the main attractions of another my former schools’ libraries, University of Chicago’s Regenstein [8], was its fully open stacks. A great research library, one could lose countless hours sifting through the Reg’s shelves on nearly any topic. The experience was rich in serendipitous potential, as books could grab one from a glance, and open up a new line of inquiry. But there was still a limit to the amount of books it could hold. Chicago, too, now has a new robo-retrieval-enabled study library, the glass-domed Mansueto [9] built next to the Reg.


The sheer size of the libraries’ holdings speaks to something Alan Jacobs has written about: the explosion of knowledge over the past hundred-plus years. Our research-style university system has a vested interest in continually publishing books and periodicals so that faculty can continue to advance their particular fields, and the books have to be put somewhere for appropriate reference. But should our libraries’ open spaces continue to serve as warehouses for ever more fine-grained analyses of the dizzying array of disciplines and sub-disciplines that constitute academia today?

Previously when libraries faced an overload, they would have to store books off-site and readers would hope for a 24-hour turnaround. Such does not conduce to casual discovery, to say the least, as shelves of books turn into random-access search results and days-long delays. Hunt provides a solution of sorts, as it is able to hold 1.5 million engineering and textiles texts below ground, and summon them to the surface within five minutes. So too can a library’s online shelf-browsing system be well designed to help bring back some of that serendipitous potential.

Books belong in libraries, without a doubt. As marvelous and convenient as e-readers and iPads may be, there should always be a strong role in our places of research and study for the classic codex to play, at least for the foreseeable future. But books are just the beginning of any intellectual journey, and to neglect how a library serves its patrons in fostering reading and learning is to risk losing a humane understanding of just what books are for.

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