Trevor Marsden: Going bookless has benefits and drawbacks

The phrase “bookless library” might sound like a bad paradox or the set-up to a cheesy pun.

But in January, the University of Texas at San Antonio announced that it will officially open “the first completely bookless library on a university or college campus” in the fall for engineering and technology students. It will offer everything from e-books to online journal subscriptions.

And while books on Gelman’s shelves may not be gone anytime soon, as students and faculty at this university, the idea of a bookless library is something that we might contend with in the near future.

The Hatchet reported in April 2012 that GW moved roughly 40 percent of Gelman’s third-floor periodicals to an off-site storage facility to free up more study space, which may set a precedent for a bookless library to come to Foggy Bottom someday.

There are some irrefutable benefits to digitization, but there are also a number of drawbacks.

For starters, it’s expensive. GW Libraries conducted a study funded to attempt to analyze the potential cost. The study found that digitizing a physical copy of a work was $1.70 a page. Digitization, after all, does not simply consist of scanning and uploading a page. The document needs to be indexed, recoded for analytics, made searchable and indexable and finally stored on a server.

Publishers present another cost-prohibitive factor. Books that the University has already bought may be illegal to digitize in some cases, and in others, the cost of purchasing a new digital copy may justify keeping the physical source.

Beyond the issue of cost, we also have to ask about what we lose physically when we digitize. Although it may be anachronistic in an age of Kindles and iPads, the physical copy of a piece of literature is irreplaceable. Yes, it’s merely an aesthetic distinction, but who’s to say that we won’t miss the crinkle of the pages and those time-frayed corners of a well-worn book. And there’s something to be said about holding a book and writing in its margins.

Despite these concerns with digitization, it does offer advantages for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. The materials, manuals and instructional resources in an engineering class differ greatly from those used by an English class examining the Canterbury Tales. STEM students have the intrinsic advantage of working within a discipline that can live behind a computer screen. While the University is still figuring out to what extent new STEM materials will be digital, Associate University Librarian for Digital Initiatives and Content Management Karim Boughida told me, in the case of the applied sciences, a bookless library is a viable option.

Whether we like the changes or not, what may surprise the average student is just how “bookless” our library experience has already become. Every time a student uses the Surveyor or any of the other digital reading resources at this University, they are most likely using Gelman’s library resources. Whether we realize it or not, most of us are already using at least some degree of a hybrid bookless library.

The seemingly paradoxical idea of the bookless library will be something that we will all live with in one way or another.

Trevor Marsden is a junior majoring in philosophy.

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