Digitalization and the Library: The End of Libraries as Physical Place?

“Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy, neither warm nor cold, light nor dark . . . . In any library in the world, I am at home, unselfconscious, still and absorbed.”  

~ Germaine Greer ~

“What a place to be in is an old library!  It seems as though all the souls of all the writers that have bequeathed their labours to these Bodleians were reposing here as in some dormitory, or middle state.  I do not want to handle, to profane the leaves, their winding-sheets.  I could as soon dislodge a shade.  I seem to inhale learning, walking amid their foliage; and the odor of their old moth-scented coverings is fragrant as the first bloom of the sciential apples which grew amid the happy orchard.” 

~ Charles Lamb ~

     Physical libraries have been in existence for more than three thousand years.  From the Library at Thebes in 1250 B.C. to the Library of Congress today, human beings have developed ways to store their information and have counted on librarians to preserve, protect, organize, and disseminate that information.  In the quest to serve society’s information needs, librarians have utilized a vast array of processes and tools to do their jobs.  These processes and tools have evolved and changed with the times.  Some of the major advances in information science have included: the development of writing and paper, the invention of the printing press and books, the creation of library classification systems such as the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress Classification System, the development of the card catalog, the implementation of electronic library cataloging systems like the MARC record, the adoption of personal computers, the availability of on-line searching, the addition of audiovisual materials to library collections, the adoption of the Internet, and heightened consumer demand for and use of technology.  (Burke, 2009, p. 13-21)   

     However, libraries not only house technology – to a large extent, libraries are a form of technology.  As author John J. Burke (2009) points out, “The library itself is a technology developed to handle information storage and retrieval” (p. 12).  If libraries themselves are a type of technology, and technology is always evolving, then this begs the question: has the concept of the library shifted to a point where a physical library is no longer necessary?  Have advances in computer and Internet technology converged to form a perfect storm of information storage and retrieval that will ultimately render physical libraries obsolete? 

     While some evidence exists that would seem to negate this conclusion, such as the fact that Ohio State University just spent three years and $109-million to renovate its 1913 library building (Carlson, 2009, para. 4), other evidence suggests that traditional book-based, physical libraries are in danger of becoming a thing of the past.  For instance, in September of this year, The Boston Globe reported that a preparatory school in New England had become perhaps the first high school in the country to dispose of its book collection and replace it with computers, flat screen televisions, and digital devices.  (Abel, 2009, para. 3) 

     In a news brief on the Cushing Academy website, the school says that it is: “. . . in the process of transforming [its] library into one that is virtually bookless by 2010.” (Cushing Academy, Newsbrief, 2009, para. 1)  It further states that: “Space that previously housed bound books will become community-building areas where students and teachers are encouraged to interact, with a coffee shop, faculty lounge, shared teacher and students learning environments, and areas for study.” (Cushing Academy, Newsbrief, 2009, para. 3)  The Globe noted that Cushing Academy will invest almost $500,000 to develop a “learning center,” complete with a $50,000 coffee shop and a $12,000 cappuccino machine in place of a reference desk.  (Abel, 2009, para. 5)  In lieu of the 20,000 books that the school once possessed, Cushing will offer eighteen electronic book readers and laptop-friendly study carrels instead.  (Abel, 2009, para. 6)

     In an on-line update from Cushing, Headmaster James Tracy stressed that the Academy’s goal in implementing this change is to provide greater accessibility to books, not less:  “Our view of the matter is that we love books so much that we want our students to have dramatically increased access to millions of volumes rather than just 20,000. “ (Cushing Academy, Update, 2009, para. 4)  As a rationale for the school’s decision to take the library digital, Tracy cited research undertaken by the school:

Our research found that, of a library of 20,000 printed books, only 48 were circulating at any given time, on average, and more than thirty of those were children’s books taken out by the families that live on campus. When we spoke with students, they told us that they were not using the books on-site for research, either. Teachers confirmed that students mostly cited on-line sources in their papers. We decided that we would provide students with much richer on-line database sources, including access to full-text, peer-reviewed journals, to teach them how to select out the most reliable content from all of the junk that they will encounter as students and professionals in the 21st century. The challenge today is how to teach students to cope with too much information, how to separate the wheat from the chaff.  (Tracy, 2009, para. 7)

     While whole-sale transformations from physical books to e-books is still rather rare, it is likely that more and more libraries will follow Cushing’s lead as technology continues to improve.  This transition into the virtual realm may not herald the end of libraries as physical places, but it certainly portends a paradigm shift in the way that library spaces are designed and used.   

     Perhaps South Korea can provide us with a window on the future of library design.  In May of this year, The National Digital Library (or dibrary) opened in Seoul with over 380,000 e-books and 116 million pieces of digital content.  (Ji-sook, 2009, para. 1)  Far from being a virtual library located solely in cyberspace, the new dibrary is an eight-story, 38,014 square-meter bricks-and-mortar building (Ji-sook, 2009, para. 1).  Among the many innovations to be found at the library are: 626 desktop computers, notebook computers for rent from the main desk, flat-screen kiosks, video and audio recording studios for creating content, touch-screen satellite televisions, twenty-four computers programmed to operate in foreign languages (complete with matching alpha-numeric keyboards), and screen readers and other equipment to assist the visually impaired and those with physical disabilities. (Ji-sook, 2009, para. 3-8) 

     In describing the new library its director, Mo Chul-min, stated that “I can surely say our library will be the first and the largest ‘physical’ space to deal with online contents only.”  (Ji-sook, 2009, para. 2)  Although not without some potential difficulties, such as copyright issues revolving around the digitization of book content and market competition with e-book companies, the South Korean model of library design suggests a promising future for libraries as place.  It should also be noted that The National Digital Library does not replace The National Library, which contains over seven million printed books, but rather serves to complement it.  (Ji-sook, 2009, para. 10)      

     While physical libraries may survive in an altered form, if librarians want to remain relevant in this techno-savvy future they will need to embrace computer and Internet technology in a heretofore unprecedented manner.  As the information that librarians have historically organized, catalogued, preserved, and disseminated in a print format continues to migrate to the digital realm, librarians will need to be comfortable with and adept at performing their functions in the virtual space.  This will require librarians to understand at the very least the basics of how search engines operate, various computer applications function, and the capabilities of various electronic devices.  As Michael Keller, the university librarian and director of academic information resources at Stanford University stated back in 2005, “The notion of a library as a physical collection has long ago been altered . . . . It’s now physical and virtual.”  (Olsen, 2005, para. 3)  

     For centuries librarians have been charged with organizing and preserving ideas and information – whether those ideas were to be found on the clay tablets of Nineveh or on the papyrus scrolls of Alexandria or in the illuminated manuscripts of the Benedictine monks.  In the end, libraries are more than physical repositories of information, and librarians are more than the professionals who manipulate physical objects in space.  Perhaps Norman Cousins said it best when he stated that:

 The library is not a shrine for the worship of books.  It is not a temple where literary incense must be burned or where one’s devotion to the bound book is expressed in ritual.  A library, to modify the famous metaphor of Socrates, should be the delivery room for the birth of ideas – a place where history comes to life.

With or without physical books, libraries and librarians will survive so long as there are ideas to be birthed and information to be organized and disseminated. 


 Abel, D. (2009, September 4).  Welcome to the library. Say goodbye to the books. Cushing Academy embraces a         digital future.  The Boston Globe.  Retrieved from http://www.boston.com/

 Burke, J. J. (2009).  Neal-Schuman Library Technology Companion: A Basic Guide for Library Staff, 3rd ed.  New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.

 Carlson, S. (2009, September 10). Ohio State U.’s Library Renovation is ‘Stupendous,’ Says a Leading Consultant.  The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/

 Cushing Academy (2009, June 11). Newsbrief: Cushing’s e-Library.  Retrieved from http://www.cushing.org/

 Cushing Academy (2009, September 10).  Library update from Headmaster Tracy.  Retrieved from http://www.cushing.org/

 Ji-sook, B. (2009, May 20).  Library Going Digital. Korea Times.  Retrieved from http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/

 Olsen, S. (2005, August 3).  The college library of tomorrow.  CNET News.  Retrieved from http://news.cnet.com/

Tracy, J. (2009, September 4).  Re: Article in the Boston Globe about Cushing’s decision to take the library digital [On-line Live Chat Comment].  Retrieved from http://www.cushing.org/misc/library-live-chat.shtml


1 Response to “Digitalization and the Library: The End of Libraries as Physical Place?”

  1. 1 Marcus K. Adams
    November 30, 2009 at 10:28 PM

    The cynic in me sees a headmaster as simply a school principal who is paid really well. So Cushing Academy is spending $500k for a “learning center” where students and faculty can “interact.” So what were they doing before the new coffee bar, texting each other? There’s something about this Starbucks mentality I find troubling (unless Starbucks paid for it) that students can learn best only if they’re sitting with a laptop, a double mocha latte with cream next to them and a fireplace in the background. It’s true that information can easily be accessed electronically, but rather than expand their databases, Cushing Academy chose to expand consumerism to a generation that can do with less of it.

    I know the argument that physical libraries are a thing consigned to the dustbins of history. However, we can add universities, stores, churches and other places of worship to the list of endangered species because what can they offer that cannot already be accessed online? Libraries and librarians have always adapted to the changes in technology. The physical library will survive (just as universities, churches and stores), partly because they provide the instant gratification people need and partly because we know that everything online isn’t always as it appears to be. Whether it be a book or merchandise, there’s nothing like having the item in your hand.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: