Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bookless library, meet bookless book

We may have a winner in the "let's kill all the libraries" sweepstakes. Inside Higher Ed reports on"A Truly Bookless Library" at the University of Texas at San Antonio:
The difference between the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Applied Engineering and Technology Library and other science-focused libraries is not that its on-site collection is also available electronically.

It is that its on-site collection is only available electronically. . . .

San Antonio says it now has the first actual bookless library. Students who stretch out in the library’s ample study spaces — which dominate the floor plan of the new building — and log on to its resource network using their laptops or the library’s 10 public computers will be able to access 425,000 e-books and 18,000 electronic journal articles. Librarians will have offices there and will be available for consultations.
In other words, UTSA has built a library, a.k.a. a large expensive room with comfy chairs, so that students can do exactly what they can now do from their dorm rooms and the local Starbucks. Frankly, I don't know how it calls itself a library. From what I can gather, it lacks even the basics, such as an espresso stand or a set of treadmills.

More seriously, I can see how a College of Engineering may not need books; I don't know enough about the scholarship of engineering to say. What does confuse me is why UTSA felt that it needed to dedicate a space called a "library" when what they're envisioning is a place for students to hang out and talk to each other. Does UTSA not have a student union? Is there not a room in there which could be designated a "library" or quiet studying space? My assumption is that UTSA must be rich enough not to worry about it, so I won't worry about it, either.

My question is more about the bookless books in the bookless library--the 425,000 e-books that will be available to students. I have three basic questions:

1. Does UTSA have licenses enough for them all (something that's brought up in the comments at IHE)? Let's assume that two professors assign an outside reading from one of these books in their 100-section lecture classes. Does UTSA have 200 licenses for this book, or are some students going to be shut out?

Disclosure: I've had this happen in much smaller classes once when I assigned a reading from a licensed e-book. The first person was able to check out the book for 24 hours under the university's license and everyone else was out of luck--and very vocally unhappy when the class next met. I never used an online book in that way again for exactly that reason.

2. The second one may be more idiosyncratic: it has to do with the handling of books. Historiann's recent post details some of the issues, such as not being able to mark up the books as easily and not being able to flip back and forth as you can with a paper book. I'd agree, and to these I'd add another: doesn't the sheer amount of screen-time that you get from reading things online, even on a dedicated device, contribute to some eyestrain and fatigue? There's something about switching media (screen to paper and back again) that rests the eyes in ways that a prolonged exposure to one or the other can't accomplish.

3. Will UTSA check in with its students to see how they're faring in this brave new world? I'd be interested to see if they're taking some kind of benchmark measurements about what students know/how much they read and will check again a few years down the road.


New Kid on the Hallway said...

But # 1 is no different from printed books - a library with one copy of something can't have a professor in a big class assign that book to the whole class, either (without actually requiring students to buy their own copy). No university library has enough volumes of any given book to supply a 100-person class. And we've all had the experience of trying to get a printed book from a library and someone's checked it out already. So why should UTSA be expected to have licenses for every student to use the e-books at the same time?

Also, I think there's still something to a library being a place where librarians are - that space still has a different function than a coffee shop or dorm room, where you can't consult a professional on how to do research and find what you need to know.

undine said...

That's a great point, New Kid; sorry--I wasn't thinking about that. I guess I was thinking more in terms of if a book is on 2-hour reserve and is required for a smaller class, there's a chance that more students will be able to get it than if it's checked out automatically for 24 hours. On the other hand, that scenario presupposes that students will actually flock to the library to do that reading.

Your second point raises an interesting question: what constitutes a library? Is it the presence of librarians?

Ink said...

It does seem very strange to "house" a cyberlibrary!

Dr. Koshary said...

I've honestly never thought about this before. It's a curious age in which we live, no? No doubt this will become more of an issue to debate as colleges begin to perceive such spaces as a way both to 'do libraries' on the cheap, and attract students with hipper-than-thou bullshit.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Yeah, I'm not sure I'm convinced that the *only* definition of a library should be "place that houses librarians," but I do think access to assistance from professionals is an important element. Although it's true that "big room full of [printed] books" would count as a library without the librarians. (Although I've always thought those big personal libraries that, for ex., members of the nobility collected in their massive mansions, should somehow be distinguished from a library to which people have access and which offers patrons assistance with use.)

I also suspect it would be possible to limit electronic check-out to 2 hours, even if UTSA doesn't do so. Personally, I almost never put readings on reserve because students hated going to the library to get it and either didn't read it or complained vociferously about having to do so. So I either just assigned books they could purchase, or used stuff available online anyway. In that respect, I think electronic reserve would be a huge improvement (and as a student now, I feel the same way - I hate being tied to a particular location to access my reading, especially since I commute 45 mins-ish each way to school - no way I'm driving up to school on a Sunday night to do my reading!).

(Of course, my teaching experience is rapidly becoming out-of-date, so...)

undine said...

Ink, that was my thought, too: not to get too postmodern about this, but where is the "there" of this library?

Dr. Koshary, your comment makes me wonder if the buildings with books will gradually get cleared out and "repurposed" as libraries without books.

New Kid, my students hate going to the library for reserves, too. I usually end up putting the readings online in some way. Especially since you have such a commute, it seems unreasonable to ask that you drive all the way there for a print copy. This actually raises something I'd been dying to ask you: in law school, are those rows of bound books you see on tv shows still important, or has most of what you need been digitized and available through databases?

Anonymous said...

It does seem very strange to "house" a cyberlibrary!

There may be technical reasons for this. Some species of electronic licensing work on the basis of access only from a certain range of internet addresses. So, Cambridge in the UK has a vast stock of e-resources that you can reach only on-campus, because they're only available when accessed from a Cambridge university IP address. They also, of course, have a remote log-in system which effectively proxies you through a Cambridge IP, but it has several extra steps in it which don't always work well. It may perhaps be that UTSA have in fact got an open licence on some of their e-books, so that all 200 notional students could read it--as long as they do so through the library's wi-fi hub... What that does for the 'there' of the library, I'm not quite sure: it's not good, though, is it? The library become where you are 'able' to read books, outside where you may not...

undine said...

tenthmedieval, that's a good point about how UTSA students could read the books on campus but not off. Our library has a similar thing: you have access automatically if you're on campus, but off-campus, the several steps work sometimes but not all the time.