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.