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Does the ‘library of the future’ need books?

University of Chicago Mansueto Library artist's rendering

The University of Chicago's Mansueto Library

Every day I cross Ellis Avenue to avoid the construction zone of the University of Chicago’s emerging Mansueto Library, whose elliptical crystal dome caps four underground floors where 3.5 million books will be kept in compact storage.

When library users at ground level request books (via the library website) they will be retrieved from the depths by robot cranes.

And every day as I pass this promising dome, I wonder: did it occur to the movers and shakers that they could just digitize those books? saving most of the library’s $81 million estimated cost, perhaps for use in the construction of a trauma center, and mulching all that aging paper and cardboard, perhaps for use in grocery bags?

Of course it did. The Mansueto Library will include a state-of-the-art digitization center.

Beneath that emerging mushroom cloud is a spectacular hospice for relics of the age of mechanical reproduction.

As digitization proceeds, it seems to me, the storage of the paper books will become increasingly cumbersome. Digitized pages will be immediately accessible via the library website without the need of robot cranes, much less librarians. In fact, patrons won’t have to go to the library.

As that day nears, how will we regard the 3.5 million volumes of ballast in the four-story basement? Surely there will be some gems down there: rare books, common books enhanced with marginalia by Enrico Fermi or Saul Bellow. But the University of Chicago has some of the world’s best special-collections librarians to catch those gems. The remainders will be, like most relics of the age of mechanical reproduction, abundantly available elsewhere.

Now imagine 3.5 million hard drives, or flash drives, or not-yet-invented drives, filling that compact-storage space. That’s a lot of ebooks.

They call it “the library of the future,” but Mansueto might be The Library of The Transition.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • David Alm February 10, 2011, 6:06 am

    I think about this a lot these days, the value of “collections” of all kinds versus the indisputable convenience and logic of digitizing data. Benjamin has a wonderful essay on collections, and their significance, and I admit that one of my favorite pastimes is going to a friend’s home and perusing his or her bookshelves. You learn a lot about someone that way, and something about long rows of book spines brings warmth to a room.

    But I also know that my bag is very heavy when I leave my apartment, I struggle to read the newspaper on a crowded train, and I think often about the amount of paper I’m wasting to maintain my daily delivery of the New York Times.

    Still, the writing’s on the wall – that is, the pixels are on the screen – and the library of the past, while the only kind I know, is fast become a dinosaur.

  • Brian Bordenkircher May 15, 2011, 12:01 pm

    I agree that libraries will change majorly over the next 20 years. We have already seen that digital forms of reading are becoming more popular and I have a feeling in the next 10 to 20 years over 90% of books will be in digital form. This will even change the price of books to possibly 3 times the cost as they become as you stated more of a collectible item. People will likely need to pay quite a higher fee for the “classic” versions of books, including the delivery and manufacturing the book, storing it, etc. Another interesting change that will continue to take place is that it will likley be easier to self publish. But one issue with this is that with more and more books available it will likely cost more to advertise a book.

    Interesting times ahead of us!