Do university students suffer when books get pulled from shelves?

Soon to join libraries across the country – and even across the world at many colleges and universities – Colby College of Maine is slated to move approximately 170,000 books into storage in the next year. This comes as a result of renovation plans which will turn some of the current library’s floor space into administrative offices. The other floor space gained, according to the school, will be used to give students increased study space for their personal use.

As mentioned, Colby College is hardly alone, many libraries, both on and off of college campuses, are having trouble balancing their traditional learning role with the new age of digitalization. Many “e libraries” and online catalogs with increasing functionality have popped up in recent years, but the merits of these systems seem to be lacking something for many library traditionalists. While digital iterations of books can hold the same information as their paper counterparts, and can often be located and searched through more easily, there are some things we lose with newer, less tangible formats. For many, these include the smell, feel, and process of actually reading through a physical book. These are, however, largely sentimental points that don’t carry a lot of weight when faced with the bottom line of the maintenance costs of a large campus library.

The loss of potential revenue when a library space becomes less used is also a reality in some cases, as some schools have turned their library spaces into lounges with coffee shops/dining options, gaming hangouts, and more to increase student and public interest.

Times change, and everyone is involved in a field where, in one way or another, technology has changed the way they do business. This is true from construction to investment banking, and from politics to teaching. Shouldn’t libraries need to adapt and modernize too? Maybe they do (and many already have), but recent studies at Pacific Lutheran University have suggested that there might be some intrinsic value to the simple environment created by stacks and shelves of books. Students have been found to prefer to study in environments in which books exist as they do in a library than in rooms without books. This is likely due to an association from a young age with libraries as bastion of knowledge and the places students go to “get work done.” Of course, if this is the reasoning behind such findings, it’s subject to change with each coming generation until eventually the association between knowledge and the library might not make much of a mark on people anymore at all.

For this reason alone, the college’s plan to “increase study space” may prove faulty; it’s hard to imagine current students feeling as at home in their study and research pursuits in a “library” completely barren and devoid of shelves, stacks, or carts of books. Even the quiet, learning-conducive environment of a library is reinforced by the sound dampening quality of bookshelves dividing up the room.

On rare occasions, grass roots movements have been able to reverse plans like the one at Colby College, though such a one-eighty seems unlikely in this case due to the planning progress already put into the project. As to the books being “stored,” it is unclear how these will be maintained, how long they will be held for, if students will be able to request access to them, or what it will cost the school to store them in the first place. If books aren’t worth putting in a library, it seems unlikely the school will want to pay for them to be stored for all that long.