You’d be forgiven for mistaking the University of California, Berkeley Moffitt Library for a startup. There are glass walls to write on, meditation classes, noise reducers that double as cheery wall art and a wellness lounge. In fact, not much differentiates the light-filled floors from a typical tech workspace in the Bay Area.

But as the LA Times reports, the remodelled undergraduate library is going bookless and, in the process, embracing a growing student trend in higher education. UC Berkeley made the decision to rid the library of 135,000 books, replacing them with spaces where students can study alone or in groups, relax, or even take a nap in a futuristic looking pod.

The Moffitt Library is not the first to funnel print materials to storage spaces in favor of creating more study room for students. The digital revolution has been taking place in university libraries across the country for the past few years now. Students largely use libraries for study and revision, and they don’t spend hours pouring over 10 different print books and journals, carefully copying out facts to back up their essay arguments.

UC Berkeley student Ted Xiao, who approves of Moffitt’s new look, told the LA Times: “I’ve never actually needed to use a physical book. I’ve never checked one out. I can’t honestly say I even know how.”

In 2010, Stanford University’s Engineering Library moved to a new digital center. The library now keeps 88 percent of its print materials in storage. Items can be ordered and delivered to the library if necessary. What replaced all those books? There is an electronic reference desk, Kindles for students to borrow and self-checkout stations. Library staff are still available to assist, but they’re only doing so through Facebook, online chat and email.

Andrew Herkovic, then communications director for Stanford University Libraries, said: “If you think about a library from several decades ago, there was a great deal of effort to retain every issue of all the journals that you’re supposed to subscribe to.

“Nowadays, we don’t need to worry about that—we have electronic versions of those journals, and the whole practice of providing information to library users has changed a great deal because of the transition to electronic means.”

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Digital study spaces

Some traditionalists lament the so-called demise of the library. In 2009, Syracuse University was met with protests from both faculty and students after they announced they would be moving low-use textbooks to a facility some 250 miles from campus. But others are learning to live with, if not embrace, the change.

Curtis T. McMullen, a math professor at UC Berkeley, said he fought to keep many of the books that helped him puzzle through problems. Yet he also understands why the overhaul happened.  

“It’s the wave of the future,” he said of digital learning. “The idea of research in a library is becoming archaic…Maybe they’re not accessing the best information with what comes up on Google, but people are used to finding things on the Internet.”

The University of Michigan spent $55-million to overhaul their medical library, which reopened in August 2015. Instead of physiology textbooks and human skeleton models, students had access to a realistic simulated patient clinic, small meeting rooms for collaboration and other technology including a large touch-screen table for exploring human anatomy virtually.

The remodel meant, again, moving hundreds of thousands of books to an offsite location, available for delivery on-demand. The school says that the new building greatly expands and enhances students’ options to develop the knowledge and skills they’ll need as doctors.

A commenter on a post from The Passive Voice (a law and self-publishing blog), had this to say about the Michigan library redesign:

“In 2009, I worked at a legal research library. Very few students ever got a book off the shelf. It’s all online. Research libraries are NOT browsing libraries for the most part. You have a specific book you want to find in most cases. Usually people would ask me to fetch it without ever entering the stacks.”

Students have been using libraries as digital study spaces for many years. And now with campuses embracing flipped classrooms, blended learning and the use of digital devices in class, the university library must adapt to meet the modern needs of its user.  

Textbook publishers would rather not read this white paper, because it’s about the shift in control in publishing from large corporations to students and faculty. Download our PDF: The Death of Textbook Publishing & The Future of Course Content.

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