Back in the 1940s, college libraries had something of an existential crisis. Charles Gosnell, a prominent library-sciences scholar and college librarian in New York, suggested that shifting academic priorities and space constraints threatened to deplete certain book collections, particularly those in highly technical fields such as chemistry, economics, and education. By phasing out the seemingly antiquated books, perhaps libraries would also be divesting themselves of the titles’ particular perspectives or scientific frameworks, many of which could be invaluable. New books had begun to far outnumber older titles in libraries’ collections, a trend that Gosnell described in his article as “book mortality.”
Libraries pulled through, of course, but then the rise of the internet renewed fears of obsolescence. So far, the internet has not killed libraries either. But the percentage of higher-education budgets dedicated to libraries has been dwindling since the 1980s, and at many institutions there’s been a corresponding drop in reported spending on print materials while that on electronic resources has grown.
Likely in the hopes of proving that they have more to offer than a simple internet connection does, many college libraries are pouring resources into interior-design updates and building renovations, or into “glitzy technology,” such as 3-D printers and green screens, that is often housed in “media centers” or “makerspaces.”
The Claremont Colleges’ shared library now has a “digital tool shed”—“a technology-rich active-learning center,” according to a 2016 press release previewing the resource, where people are able to “try out innovative pedagogy” such as a data-visualization wall and cutting-edge video- and audio-recording software. Minnesota’s Macalester College library has an “Idea Lab,” which it describes as “a co-working space resembling that of many big tech companies,” where students can needle-felt miniature animals and wear virtual-reality helmets. The goal is, ultimately, to stay relevant and increase appeal. (See: the “Mad Librarian Escape Room” at Goodwin College’s library, which tasks teams of students with salvaging a rare book—a “precious volume!”—via clues they gather in a scavenger hunt.)
Yet much of the glitz may be just that—glitz. Survey data and experts suggest that students generally appreciate libraries most for their simple, traditional offerings: a quiet place to study or collaborate on a group project, the ability to print research papers, and access to books. Notably, many students say they like relying on librarians to help them track down hard-to-find texts or navigate scholarly journal databases. “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers,” as the writer Neil Gaiman once said. “A librarian can bring you back the right one.”
Some colleges see libraries as prime real estate that can hold any number of miscellaneous student services, from tutoring to child care. “As the college grows and space becomes tight, a library that sometimes looks empty might be a tempting target for administrators trying to maximize the use of space on their campuses,” noted a trade-association article published earlier this year. Such “tides of change,” as an Indiana University library-sciences professor argued in a 2016 study, “threaten the core of library practices and values.”
So-called digital natives still crave opportunities to use libraries as libraries, and many actively seek out physical texts—92 percent of the college students surveyed in a 2015 study, for example, said they preferred paper books to electronic versions. (Plus, a growing body of evidence shows that physical books and papers are more conducive to learning than digital formats are.) The dean of learning and technology resources at one of the six campuses of Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) recently told me about a student he had met: Upon learning that her campus library had only the e-book version of a text she needed to read, the woman opted to make the trek to another campus a nearly half-hour commute away that had the hard copy. A 2016 survey of students at Webster University, which is based in Missouri but has campuses around the world, also illustrates limited use of digital resources, finding that just 18 percent of students accessed e-books “frequently” or “very frequently,” compared with 42 percent who never used them.*
Duke University’s 2016 survey of its students drew similar conclusions, finding that book delivery was one of the most important services to students; fancy library services such as instant messaging or data-visualization help fell much lower on students’ priority lists. A separate, years-long project on community-college students by the NOVA dean and a team of researchers found that respondents “most often view the library as the service provider they would likely go to” for an array of bread-and-butter needs, such as help gathering research for a paper, registering for classes, or applying for financial aid. Demand for access to devices such as 3-D printers and virtual-reality headsets was relatively low; respondents tended to highlight the need for reliable Wi-Fi instead.
Many college libraries are reinventing themselves, but perhaps they’re trying to fix an institution that isn’t, in fact, broken. “I mean, yeah, the degree is cool,” one community-college student told the researchers of the aforementioned study when asked what he wanted from his campus services, “but I’m more about the knowledge.”
* This piece has been updated to more accurately reflect the location of Webster University's campuses.