The Books of College Libraries Are Turning Into Wallpaper
University libraries around the world are seeing precipitous declines in the use of the books on their shelves.
By Dan Cohen
May 26 2019
When Yale recently decided to relocate three-quarters of the books in its undergraduate library to create more study space, the students loudly protested. In a passionate op-ed in the Yale Daily News, one student accusedthe university librarian—who oversees 15 million books in Yale’s extensive library system—of failing to “understand the crucial relationship of books to education.” A sit-in, or rather a “browse-in,” was held in Bass Library to show the administration how college students still value the presence of books. Eventually the number of volumes that would remain was expanded, at the cost of reducing the number of proposed additional seats in a busy central location.
Little-noticed in this minor skirmish over the future of the library was a much bigger story about the changing relationship between college students and books. Buried in a slide deck about circulation statistics from Yale’s library was an unsettling fact: There has been a 64 percent decline in the number of books checked out by undergraduates from Bass Library over the past decade.
Yale’s experience is not at all unique—indeed, it is commonplace. University libraries across the country, and around the world, are seeing steady, and in many cases precipitous, declines in the use of the books on their shelves. The University of Virginia, one of our great public universities and an institution that openly shares detailed library circulation stats from the prior 20 years, is a good case study. College students at UVA checked out 238,000 books during the school year a decade ago; last year, that number had shrunk to just 60,000.
Before you tsk-tsk today’s kids for their lack of bookishness, note that the trend lines are sliding southward for graduate students and faculty members, too: down 61 percent and 46 percent, respectively, at UVA. Overall, across its entire network of libraries, UVA circulated 525,000 books during the 2007–08 school year, but last year there were only 188,000 loans—nearly 1,000 fewer books checked out a day. The Association of Research Libraries’ aggregated statisticsshow a steady decrease of the same proportion across its membership, even as student enrollment at these universities has grown substantially.
Maybe students aren’t checking the books out but are still consulting them regularly within the library? This also does not appear to be true. Many libraries also track such in-house uses, by tallying the books that need to be reshelved, and the trends are the same. At my library at Northeastern University, undergraduate circulations declined 50 percent from 2013 to 2017—before we decided to do our own book relocation—and our logged number of books removed from shelves but not checked out also dropped by half.
These stark statistics present a conundrum for those who care about libraries and books. At the same time that books increasingly lie dormant, library spaces themselves remain vibrant—Snell Library at Northeastern now receives well over 2 million visits a year—as retreats for focused study and dynamic collaboration, and as sites of an ever wider array of activities and forms of knowledge creation and expression, including, but also well beyond, the printed word. It should come as no surprise that library leadership, in moments of dispassionate assessment often augmented by hearing from students who have trouble finding seats during busy periods, would seek to rezone areas occupied by stacks for more individual and group work. Yet it often does come as an unwelcome surprise to many, especially those with a powerful emotional attachment to what libraries should look like and be.
What’s happening here is much more complicated than an imagined zero-sum game between the defenders of books and library futurists. The decline in the use of print books at universities relates to the kinds of books we read for scholarly pursuits rather than pure pleasure, the rise of ebooks and digital articles, and the changing environment of research. And it runs contrary to the experience of public libraries and bookstores, where print continues to thrive.
Unlike most public libraries, the libraries of colleges and universities have always been filled with an incredibly wide variety of books, including works of literature and nonfiction, but also bound scientific journals and other highly specialized periodicals, detailed reference works, and government documents—different books for different purposes. Although many of these volumes stand ready for immersive, cover-to-cover reading, others await rarer and often brief consultations, as part of a larger network of knowledge. Even many monographs, carefully and slowly written by scholars, see only very sporadic consultation, and it is not uncommon for the majority of college collections to be unused for a decade or more. This is as it should be: Research libraries exist to collect and preserve knowledge for the future as well as for the present, not to house just the latest and most popular works.
But there is a difference between preservation and access, and a significant difference, often unacknowledged, in the way we read books for research instead of pleasure. As the historian Michael O’Malley humorously summarizedthe nature of much scholarly reading and writing, “We learn to read books and articles quickly, under pressure, for the key points or for what we can use. But we write as if a learned gentleman of leisure sits in a paneled study, savoring every word.” Or as he more vividly described the research process, academics often approach books like “sous-chefs gutting a fish.”