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The “Bookless” Library

Will the future of libraries be devoid of books?
Hunt Library

Libraries have served as inspiration and classroom to many. Take author Ray Bradbury, for example. He told Sam Weller in Listen to the Echoes,

“I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library … it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read… I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt … I discovered that the library is the real school.”

But Bradbury’s vision of the transportive, book-encrusted library may become a thing of the past: North Carolina State University will soon open Hunt Library, to the applause of many – it is clean, modern, full of open spaces… but devoid of books.

Time and Ploughshares Literary Magazine compare it to an Apple store. A quick tour via the library’s YouTube video displays bright rooms, full of crayon-toned colors and vaulted ceilings. There are more than 80 types of chairs in the library (from classic wooden models to poppy-red bubble chairs), but only a few sparsely placed bookshelves.

Instead, books are transported from hidden archives through a mechanized procedure called “bookBot.” This system, according to the library, frees space for “collaborative work.” The library features a “Game Lab” with a 21-foot-wide screen and 270-degree projectors. “No other students in the state will have access to as much technology as they’ve had access to here in the Hunt Library,” boasts the digital library’s Associate Director, Kristen Antelman.

It is important to note the Hunt Library is only one of NC State’s libraries, and is specifically dedicated to the school’s engineering campus. The university does have a more traditional library. Yet many are heralding the Hunt Library as the “library of the future,” and other institutions are quickly following suit.

BiblioTech,” Bexar County’s new public library, will open in the fall – and it too will be completely “bookless.” Instead, it will have 50 computer stations, 150 e-readers, 25 laptops, and 25 tablets.

“We all know the world is changing. I am an avid book reader. I read hardcover books, I have a collection of 1,000 first editions. Books are important to me,” Bexar County’s Judge NelsonWolff told ABC News. “But the world is changing and this is the best, most effective way to bring services to our community.”

According to a Pew poll released on Wednesday, however, American 16 to 29-year-olds actually enjoy traditional libraries, and use them. They are “just as likely as older adults to visit the library, and once there they borrow print books and browse the shelves at similar rates … relatively few think that libraries should automate most library services, move most services online, or move print books out of public areas.”

After spending 17 years photographing libraries across America, professor and photographer Robert Dawson said in 2011,

 “The modern American public library is reading room, book lender, video rental outlet, internet café, town hall, concert venue, youth activity center, research archive, history museum, art gallery, homeless day shelter, office suite, coffeeshop, seniors’ clubhouse and romantic hideaway rolled into one. In small towns of the American West, it is also the post office and the backdrop of the local gun range. These are functions that the digital public libraries of the future will never be able to recreate.”

Books – in a few basic forms and in all their unadulterated goodness – have entranced readers for thousands of years. In their focus on “innovation,” NC State and BiblioTech are shutting out riches of the past within steel shelves and pixels. They have made way for more chairs and “open spaces,” but have boxed up classic pastimes like browsing bookshelves and hunting old, worn treasures (not to mention the unmistakable “book smell”). They have, at least in a physical sense, lost the quintessential definition of the word “library” (hint: it’s derived from the Latin word liber, or “book”).

North Carolina’s Governor Jim Hunt, namesake of the new Hunt Library, told its architect that the library was “for people who are not yet born… who will be influenced in a positive way by the development of this structure.”

While the library may influence budding scientists and architects, one hopes the little Bradburys of the future won’t get lost in the shuffle.